Patriots

10 takeaways from Patriots vs Titans: Isaiah Wynn a wall in pass protection

10 takeaways from Patriots vs Titans: Isaiah Wynn a wall in pass protection

NASHVILLE – The product popped last week when the Patriots played the Lions in their preseason opener. This week in Nashville? Kinda messy.

The explanation for that is simple. Very few of the team’s best players took part on either side of the ball.

Among those on the DNP-CD list were: Tom Brady, Phillip Dorsett, Stephon Gilmore, Sony Michel, James White, Jonathan Jones, Devin McCourty, Rex Burkhead, James Develin, Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, David Andrew, Marcus Cannon, Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason, Michael Bennett and Lawrence Guy.

“A lot of the guys that practiced a lot (during the week) didn’t play tonight,” said Bill Belichick. “Guys that didn’t practice as much played a lot tonight so I think we had a really good evaluation of everybody.”

What was our evaluation? Come with! We’ll show you!
The Patriots left tackle position is going to be in unbelievably capable hands with ISAIAH WYNN. Playing in a game for the first time since blowing his Achilles last preseason, Wynn was a wall in pass protection, showed great feet in getting blocks at the first level and then looking for work further downfield and seems to just lock defenders up.  

I asked Wynn, “How did you feel you did out there?”

“Good,” he said. Then, as if remembering he better sound too satisfied, he added a beat later, “I still have plenty of things to work on though.”

The pace of the game was – at times – excruciating. It was a little bit of everything. An early PI challenge by the Titans (they lost as rookie Joejuan Williams was found to be on the right side of the law on a third-down pass breakup). A couple of injuries to Patriots (Derek Rivers hurt his knee and, sadly, it looks like it’s going to be a while for him. Again. Shilique Calhoun got dinged but appeared fine in the locker room). But more than anything else, it was the penalties. The Patriots had 12 called on them and the Titans had 10. That is attributable to less-experienced players on the field in some cases but the most significant penalty sequence of the night came late in the first half. First, tight end Lance Kendricks placed a Titan in a headlock when he was pass-protecting for Jarrett Stidham. The holding call resulted in a safety. Next, after the free kick, the Patriots had 12 men on the field defensively.

Speaking of defense, there’s a real collaboration going down on the Patriots sidelines. It appeared Steve Belichick called defensive plays in the first half and Jerod Mayo called them in the second half. Also, Patrick Chung – in uniform but not playing – was active in helping coach the secondary on a down-to-down basis, signaling in plays and seeming to help make calls.

Getting back to that free kick I mentioned? Jake Bailey, the Stanford rookie took it. And he hit it almost to Pluto, about 65 yards in the air. On Bailey’s only punt of the night, he hung it 54 yards and there was no return. Ryan Allen, God bless him, he’s not going down without a fight. He had a punt of 57 yards and dropped one of his two inside the 20. Bailey was the holder on field goals and PATs and Stephen Gostkowski missed his only attempt, a 40-yarder.

In two preseason games, Jakobi Meyers has caught 12 of the 14 passes sent his way for 151 yards and two touchdowns. And the balls he’s catching aren’t short little slants and outs. They are crossers in traffic and downfield passes as well. After watching him during practice and in two games, it’s clear he’s the real thing and he deserves to be a starter. Honestly, when N’Keal Harry returns from whatever’s ailing him and Josh Gordon joins the team and begins practicing, I’m going to be really interested to see if they can exceed what Meyers is doing. And not just exceed it for a time. Do it every day the way he has. It’s a fascinating story. During the game, longtime NFL personnel man Jim Nagy, who runs the Senior Bowl, stated plainly on Twitter that Meyers was “the best contested ball catcher in last year’s draft.” 

A great week of practice by Braxton Berrios was followed up by a modest game. He was targeted once and that pass was picked by Logan Ryan. The throw from Brian Hoyer didn’t have a lot of zing on it but Berrios was kind of floating upfield on his route as well which made it easy for Logan Ryan to undercut him for the pick.

Rookie running back Damien Harris worked his ass off with four catches for 23 yards and 14 carries for 80. He’s not an edge-of-your-seat kind of runner who’ll make spectacular moves but his meat-and-potatoes style is a nice fit. Reminds me a little bit of Benjarvus Green-Ellis.

I had no idea the Patriots had a player named Calvin Munson. But when No. 48 showed up on about eight straight plays defensively with pursuit, pressure or brilliant form tackling at linebacker I made sure to check. He was everywhere. And, mind you, that was against the Titans first offense.

How important to the team is Matt Slater? Both times the Patriots had a player spend an extended period on the field with an injury, Slater was the person who went out with the medical staff to – I’m assuming – lend some support to the player. Whether he was assigned that job or just took it on himself, I don’t know but nothing happens without the OK of Bill Belichick. He’s not going to sign off on guys just walking on the field whenever they want if someone is hurt. This is a role for Slater. Between this assignment and seeing Chung as almost a player-coach, it’s cool to see how empowering Belichick can be as a boss with some of his players.

Through two preseason games, Jarrett Stidham has performed exactly as advertised. He makes some incredible throws – a back-shoulder touchdown to shortish receiver Damoun Patterson was like a drone strike – and he gets a little skittish and can make some sketchy decisions. He had two near-picks that could have been taken the distance the other way.

Those throws and decisions can definitely be coached out of him if he’s willing. But the touch and accuracy? That’s a gift. I also liked his instincts on a pair of scrambles that picked up first downs. The issue he’ll deal with – as Jimmy Garoppolo did – is that the starters are better than the scrubs and if you find yourself on the field with them, they move faster and hit harder so spin-o-rama escape moves that work in August can put a quarterback in a sling in October.

The Patriots are off Sunday but back at it again on Monday and Tuesday getting ready for their first home game of the preseason. There are no more open practices this season so that party is over.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

 

How N'Keal Harry can help answer what ails the Patriots passing game

How N'Keal Harry can help answer what ails the Patriots passing game

FOXBORO -- N'Keal Harry didn't get on the field much last week. He played two snaps, to be exact. But on one of them, he flashed the skill set that made him a first-round pick in the spring. 

Bouncing off three potential tacklers, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound wideout kept his balance, stopped himself from going out of bounds and laid out to break the plane of the goal line with the football. Of course, he was ruled out of bounds. But he wasn't. And what he did after catching Tom Brady's shallow flip caught offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' eye. 

"Certainly, he made a great individual effort," McDaniels said this week. "Broke a tackle and then had good balance there to finish the play and give us an opportunity to score. He’s a big guy. He’s not easy to get to the ground. Certainly, when you have players like that, it comes back to how can you get him the football in those situations, understanding that there’s a level of diminishing returns if you try to keep doing the same things over and over again? 

"Meaning there’s only so many times you can hand a player that’s not a running back the ball. There’s only so many times you can throw the ball behind the line of scrimmage. Whatever those are – slants, unders, etc. – those plays are all productive plays when you have a guy that can do something with it. 

"We know [Harry's] big and not easy to tackle, and like I said, I need to do a better job of finding ways to get him in space, get him the ball and letting him have an opportunity to do those things."

We highlighted earlier this week how the Patriots have struggled in the red zone this season, but their passing game has been bogged down for weeks -- regardless of where they are on the field. Brady has cracked 300 yards passing just once since Week 6. His yards per attempt number hasn't cracked 7.0 (his career average is 7.5) since Week 8. 

Perhaps trying to get Harry more involved could provide the team a boost. He's looked unsure of his assignment at times when breaking the huddle this season -- he hesitated before going into motion on his would-be touchdown catch-and-run play -- but his physical skill set is hard to ignore for an offense experiencing the difficulties this one is. 

Here are a few ways Harry might be able to help if he sees more than a couple of snaps this coming weekend against the Bengals...

GET HIM IN SPACE

McDaniels understands as well as anyone that one of Harry's strengths coming out of college was what he was able to do in the short passing game. Arizona State would throw him screens or quick hitches against off coverage, he'd turn, break a tackle, reverse field and turn it into an explosive gain. Happened multiple times. 

In the NFL, press coverage is more prevalent. And broken tackles are harder to come by than they were in the Pac 12. But Harry still has above-average size and upper-body strength (he was in the 99th percentile among combine receivers in the bench press), and clearly has the ability to shake off tackles from smaller defensive backs. 

The Patriots have tried to use Harry in space at times this season, but not often. He'd run what looked like six under routes prior to his catch against the Chiefs. He hadn't been used in motion until that play. And he has only been used out of one bunch formation. 

They tried to get him in space on a high-low crosser over the middle where a pick from tight end Matt LaCosse gave Harry a bit of an opening. The target sent the rookie's way went incomplete. They've run him on four corner routes from stack alignments -- with another receiver almost directly behind him off the line -- designed to create traffic and manufacture separation. 

They've only run Harry on one screen to this point, and it came in his first game. 

More receiver screens like this one could be beneficial since it's a high-percentage attempt that allows Harry's physicality to take over as soon as he has the ball in his hands. This play might've gone for more with Isaiah Wynn at left tackle. 

Even jet sweeps -- or missile-motion plays, as they're sometimes referred to in New England -- might make sense to get the ball in Harry's hands. As McDaniels said, there's only so many times you can do that, but Harry hasn't done it yet. There's timing that needs to be right on those types of snaps, but earlier this week, when asked about the preciseness of the timing on a play like that one, Bill Belichick made it sound like it didn't require an advanced degree in the Erhardt-Perkins system to be able to execute those. 

"There’s an element of timing," Belichick said, "just like there is on mostly every other play. So, you work on it. Try to have the timing right for that play and that’s an important part of it, but again, I think most every team in the league runs that play, or some version of it. So, it’s certainly doable."

HIT 'EM WHERE THEY AIN'T

The Patriots have for years been fond of saying that offensively they want to force defenses to defend "every blade of grass." 

That didn't happen last week in Kansas City. Time and again, the Chiefs were willing to double-team Julian Edelman with their free safety, leaving the middle of the field exposed. Apparently, there was not a player outside of Edelman that the Chiefs feared would beat them long. 

If they were, they had a funny way of showing it. 

The Patriots hit the Chiefs for a pair of long gains when the Chiefs dropped their safety on Edelman and played one-on-one across the board everywhere else, but both gains were the result of defensive pass interference penalties. 

Brady didn't always find the receiver exposing the weak spot in Chiefs coverages when they chose to play without a deep safety. But just as the Chiefs seemed to have no fear in being beaten by Phillip Dorsett, Jakobi Meyers or Mohamed Sanu, Brady seemed to have little interest in trying those players on long attempts outside of the deep shots that resulted in flags.

If the Chiefs plan for the Patriots is one that's adopted by other defenses late in the year, then they can expect opposing coordinators to continue to dare them to win deep by taking away Edelman, going one-on-one across the board otherwise, and pressuring Brady with five. 

To hurt that particular scheme, the Patriots need someone who's a threat to win down the middle of the field. Maybe that'll be Sanu, but he's dealing with an ankle injury that appears to be limiting him, and he's not thought of as a down-the-field receiver to begin with. 

Harry would make sense as that hit-'em-where-they-ain't option. He's not necessarily a threat to blow by his defender in coverage -- he ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash at the combine -- but he's still a threat to defeat one-on-one coverage by out-leaping his man for the ball and making contested catches. He was one of the best, if not the best, contested-catch receivers in this year's draft class and Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio touted Harry's ability in that regard soon after he was drafted.

Of the 70 routes Harry has run this year, he's handled what looked like a dozen go routes as well as four posts and a post-corner. All of those are plays that could result in jump-balls for Harry in one-on-one coverage. 

They might not be high-percentage shots, but they might be necessary to soften up defenses because the Chiefs showed that they could slow down the Patriots by leaving the deep part of the field under-manned defensively . . . and it's a copycat league. A couple of long completions to Harry could do wonders to open up the rest of the Patriots passing game. 

PLAY TO STRENGTHS

Without knowing Patriots play-calls or route adjustments on certain snaps, it's hard to know exactly how many of Harry's routes could've ended up as back-shoulder fade targets. In theory, any vertical route up the sideline -- Harry has aligned outside on 81 percent of his routes this year -- could turn into a back-shoulder throw. 

But he has just two back-shoulder targets this season in 70 routes run. Both came against the Cowboys, and one resulted in his first career touchdown. Though he let his only other back-shoulder target slide through his hands in the rain that day, he still seems like a viable target on those types of contested passes the same way Josh Gordon was early on in his Patriots tenure in 2018. 

Harry showed time and again impressive body control and athleticism on back-shoulder attempts this summer well before toe-tapping in the end zone for his first score as a pro. 

Belichick used to say of retired Patriots center Dan Koppen, "His strength is his strength." The same appears to be true for Harry at the receiver position. Both with the ball in his hands or as a jump-ball specialist, Harry's frame is a weapon.

For an offense that could use all the help it can get with its 27th-ranked red-zone offense, dialing up Harry in that fashion seems logical.

Of course Brady will need time in the pocket in order to find Harry, whether it's on a lob near the goal line or deep down the middle of the field to attack a vacated area -- something the 42-year-old quarterback hasn't been afforded much of lately. 

But if the Patriots can protect, and if they feel comfortable trusting Harry to execute his assignments, then there are ways he can help provide a spark. They're at the point now where they need to exhaust all options. 

CURRAN: Preventable controversy is the last thing Belichick needed>>>

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

Antonio Brown, Robert Kraft, Pats and Bruins among most searched on Google in 2019

Antonio Brown, Robert Kraft, Pats and Bruins among most searched on Google in 2019

You people are searching Antonio Brown on Google way, way too much. 

Seriously, the former New England Patriots wide receiver was the fifth most searched on Google in 2019, according to CNN. He also ranked as the No. 1 person searched and first in athletes searched.

To go along with Brown, Pats owner Robert Kraft was the tenth most searched person in 2019 -- it's no surprise either considering the major massage parlor scandal he was involved in. The Pats were also the second most searched NFL team behind the Dallas Cowboys, according to Google. 

The Boston Bruins also were the first most searched NHL team following their devastating loss to the St. Louis Blues in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. The New England Revolution landed at No. 6 in the most searched MLS clubs. Both the Boston Red Sox and Celtics failed to make the list. 

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.