Patriots

N'Keal Harry busy in Patriots debut, but red zone attack is begging for more

N'Keal Harry busy in Patriots debut, but red zone attack is begging for more

PHILADELPHIA — The Patriots weren't planning on playing N'Keal Harry 32 snaps in his regular-season debut. That much seemed clear. But when Phillip Dorsett suffered a head injury that knocked him from the game, Harry went from just getting his feet wet in his first regular-season NFL game to being pushed into the deep end. 

After playing just seven of 36 offensive snaps through the first half, Harry played 25 of the next 38 as the team's No. 3 wideout. He finished the game with three catches on four targets for 18 total yards. 

Here are five takeaways from the rookie first-round pick's debut . . . 

BIG-BODIED SLANT: SEEN THAT BEFORE

Harry was used primarily as a blocker early on, executing an effective "crack" block down on defensive end Derek Barnett . But on his fifth snap, he saw his first target.

Aligned wide to the left, he ran a slant while seeing one-on-one coverage. Walling off the defender with his 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame, the play went for 11 yards and a first down.

It was the type of play the Patriots ran oftentimes with outside-the-numbers threat Josh Gordon during the 2018 season and the early portion of this season. It's a difficult one to defend against receivers of that ilk because it's hard for corners to fight through their frames.

We noted prior to the 2019 draft that Harry and Gordon's physical profiles were similar. Stephon Gilmore has seen plenty of Harry at Patriots practice since he began working with the team in Week 7. The veteran corner said that even though he has plenty to learn, as far as the physical part of the game goes, Harry is advanced.

"He's got that," Gilmore said. "He's strong. Reps and practice. That's what it takes."

BIG-BODIED SLANT: TEACHING MOMENT

On New England's first drive of the fourth quarter, Harry ran a route almost identical to the one he ran to make his first NFL catch. It came on a second-and-six snap, and once again he aligned wide to the left. Once again he ran a slant.

This time, though, it looked like he might have faded up the field ever so slightly as the ball approached. Instead of charging back to the ball, it took an extra beat to get to him, and as he fought off contact from corner Ronald Darby the pass fell incomplete.

Brady hit Jakobi Meyers on a slant on the next play to keep the drive going, but for Harry, the only incompletion thrown in his direction felt like it might end up a teaching point. There should be plenty of those for Harry after he saw his first live-action reps since August in the preseason opener in Detroit.

"It was great," Harry said of being back on the field for a game. "It was fun to be out there, see what it's like. Got a lot to work on, but excited to move forward."

INSIDE, OUTSIDE, SPECIAL TEAMS

Harry wasn't strictly used as an outside-the-numbers receiver to the left side of the formation, but that's where he played primarily. It's where we saw him play in that preseason opener in Detroit.

But Harry also worked from the slot on both sides of the formation, he was the point man in a bunch formation (the middle receiver in a tightly-packed group of three), and he worked wide to the right a bit as well. He ran slants, hitches, go routes and posts. He also ran one quick-hitting play where Brady found him along the line of scrimmage immediately and he plowed ahead for four yards.

His third catch, meanwhile, came in a scramble-drill type of situation with Brady looking for a bail-out option. Diving to his left, Harry made a short grab for three yards. Though it was a small gain, that type of play might help Tom Brady trust Harry a little more than he did Sunday morning.

Harry — who played multiple snaps on the punt-return team (three, by my count) — also didn't hurt himself by being able to align in multiple positions and playing penalty-free football.

"He appreciates the opportunity that he has," Matthew Slater said. "When you're hurt and you have a chance to kind of reflect and assess your personal situation and the team's situation, it gives you perspective. It makes you appreciate the opportunities you do have to be on the field. I think he feels that way.

"He's thankful to be out there. He's excited to be out there doing whatever he's asked to do. He played in the kicking game out there tonight, did some different things for us offensively."

NFL SCRAMBLE-DRILL SITUATION

There's no doubt Harry had plenty to think about in his first regular-season game, and we can assume the speed of the game will slow down for him eventually, allowing him to react more freely.

But there were a couple of plays where it seemed as though Harry was hesitant to veer from his assigned route in scramble-drill situations. Again, without knowing the team's exact scramble-drill rules, or his particular assignment on a given play, it's difficult to know exactly what he should've done in the two situations that stood out Sunday.

The first came on a third-and-seven in the red zone. Brady scrambled to his right while Harry ran a shallow crosser all the way across the field. Once he got to the sideline, and Brady still had the ball, he stopped. Could he have worked up the field? Back to the line of scrimmage? Hard to say.

Later, on the play where he caught a pass for three yards, he stopped as it looked like Brady might be sacked. He finished the play and obviously had the awareness to keep his eyes on Brady, but scramble-drill situations like those typically result in Patriots receivers scrambling themselves for open space to give Brady a throwing lane. 

THE RED ZONE BECKONS?

Harry didn't see much work in the red zone despite the Patriots making three trips there. I counted four snaps. The team was successful on one of those trips — making them 3-for-7 in the red zone over their last two games — but Harry wasn't on the field for it. Harry (and fellow rookie Jakobi Meyers) got red-zone work over Mohamed Sanu and Phillip Dorsett during one failed trip in the second quarter. Neither rookie saw a target then.

On New England's next drive, the Patriots got to the Eagles 4-yard line and threw on three straight plays — incomplete to Sanu, incomplete to Edelman, incomplete to James White — but Harry wasn't on the field for those either.

On the next drive, with good field position gifted to the Patriots by a Carson Wentz fumble, Harry was not part of the plan. Harry was not on the field for the turbo series the Patriots ran to start the third quarter, either . . . But he was on the field for the two-point conversion that followed Dorsett's touchdown on that drive. That would suggest the Patriots like the idea of using Harry's size down by the goal line, even if only as a blocker at times.

But given the Patriots' struggles in the red zone (50 percent, 21st going into Week 11) and in their goal-to-go passing attack (28th in success rate from 10 yards and in going into Week 11), maybe Harry would help remedy their issues there.

Gilmore said he's been impressed by some of the physical elements Harry has taken with him to practices. Perhaps those can translate when the Patriots get a crack at the end zone.

"He's physical," Gilmore said. "He makes tough catches. You can be covering him and he'll still make a catch. I think that's what he's good at. Hopefully he'll keep getting better and he can help us out as the season goes on."

Down by the goal line, where space is hard to come by in the passing game, where big targets near the back end line can provide real value, it may be only a matter of time before Harry gets a shot. They need to find a way to be more efficient from 20 yards and in, and it looks like he has the skill set to potentially make an impact there.

Curran's Best & Worst from Pats-Eagles>>>>>

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Tom Brady jokingly challenges Lamar Jackson to a unique race on Twitter

Tom Brady jokingly challenges Lamar Jackson to a unique race on Twitter

During Thursday night's game against the New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson made history. He broke Michael Vick's record for the most quarterback rushing yards in a season on an early-game run against the Jets defense.

In the wake of this historic moment, another historically-good quarterback took time to comment on Jackson's speed and running ability. But not in the way that many would think.

That's right, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady challenged Jackson to a race on Twitter.

Okay, so maybe it's not really a race. Or a challenge of any sort. Brady is just making fun of his own lacking speed while praising Jackson for his effort this season.

Still, the image of Jackson trying to race Brady on natural grass while on rollerblades is hilarious. But frankly, it's no guarantee that Brady would win that one given Jackson's unbelievable athletic ability.

That said, Jackson didn't seem to like his chances in the race, as captured postgame by ESPN.

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

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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>>>

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