PATS REPORTER

Perry's mailbag: Will Stevenson play a larger role vs. Chargers?

PATS REPORTER

The New England Patriots are set to face the Los Angeles Chargers in Sunday's Week 8 matchup at SoFi Stadium. But before that, we've got some questions to answer. Let's get to the mailbag...

Interesting to hear running backs coach Ivan Fears acknowledge that the Patriots are basically choosing between Rhamondre Stevenson and JJ Taylor based on a variety of factors from one week to the next.

“Everything goes into it,” Fears said. “Everything they do all week long goes into it. Usually Bill makes the decision at the end of the week based on how the guys handled the week. We got two good guys there in J.J. and Rhamondre. They’re both battling it out. They’re busting their butt. They’re doing a great job. We love both of them.

But you can’t play them all. Unfortunately, we got to make a call. Generally speaking, what they do during the week dictates who gets that call. So both guys are usually ready to go, and Coach makes a decision at the end of the week… Next week, we’ll see what happens.” If I had to guess, I’d say Stevenson will be up this week. This could be a run-heavy game against the worst run defense on football. Their defensive approach — to guard against the pass first — is by design under two-high-safety-loving head coach Brandon Staley.

Perry: How the Pats can exploit an aggressive Chargers defense

But Fears (who was electric as always in his media availability period with reporters this week), said no one plays the Patriots with two high safeties. He’s right, of course. The Patriots are run-focused enough — and short-passing-game focused enough — that playing two safeties deep against them doesn’t make much sense. This, this week, the Chargers will probably make a change. It still may not matter. Even if they drop a safety into the box to help against the run, they haven’t proved they can consistently dominate opposing offensive lines at the point of attack. They may use five linemen AND bring an extra defender into the box to beat the Patriots run game with numbers. If that’s the case, then the game will be on Mac Jones’ right arm. But if not, this could be a run-heavy attack featuring New England’s two biggest and most punishing backs Damien Harris and Stevenson.  

 

It can be improved, Brian. He’ll get stronger, and so too should his arm. At the moment, his arm is probably below-average among NFL starters. I’d say it’s good enough. But relative to other passers it is what it is. The reason it could be an issue? When he’s protected, his feet are set, and he can get his body into the throw, it’s generally not. Even in those moments, though, it could pop up when trying to fit a pass into a tight window or making a long throw to the sideline. Then there are the moments when the pocket isn’t clean, which are unavoidable. If his feet are off, if he can’t make a pure delivery, getting juice on the ball will be tougher for him than it is most other quarterbacks. But anticipation can mitigate some of those issues, and he clearly has the ability to throw with anticipation. Same with decision-making. I don’t think it’s been an issue to this point in this season. But it will be interesting to see how his arm looks once the weather gets worse and it’s more difficult to drive the football. Hard to know how he’ll perform in wintery conditions. Not many opportunities for that growing up in Jacksonville and then later in the SEC.

Would the Patriots be open to an Andy Isabella-for-N’Keal Harry swap? I’m not sure they would be. Harry has a very minimal role in this offense, but he’s big enough and willing enough to every so often be an effective blocker. Isabella has an impressive physical skill set of his own, but it’s very different. He’d be a straight-line speed guy at 5-foot-9, 190 pounds. I think there’s value in that and I’d be open to that kind of swap. But I think that’s what it would have to be. Otherwise you’ve got a lot of receivers (two with minimal roles) on a team that wants to run a lot of two-back and two-tight end sets. But, in Isabella, I think you’d be looking at a Damiere Byrd type. Not a Julian Edelman type. Hard to say, admittedly, because he’s played so little. Can he play at all? Would be interesting to give him a shot in exchange for a polar opposite type of player at the same position, who also hasn’t done much since entering the league in 2019. 

 

Man. I really enjoyed watching Aiyuk as a rookie. Explosive. Dynamic with the ball in his hands. But the Niners traded up in the first round to get him in 2020. They know he has potential. This season has been a mess on a variety of different fronts for their team. Seems highly unlikely they’d bail on one of their best young players because he’s had difficulty in what could end up a lost year for the entire team. It’s take serious draft capital (a second and then some?) to pry him from San Francisco. I might be willing to go that route if I’m the Patriots. I just can’t see the Niners feeling they should be trying to move on. 

Have just the thing for you right here, Pat!

Like this question. The Patriots are a slightly below-average blitz rate this team in 2021, checking in at 18th to this point in the year (23.9 percent). They ranked 23rd in in blitz rate last year, but they were about as aggressive as they’ve been this year (24.4 percent). In 2019, they were sixth (37.1). In 2018, they were eighth (30.9). So the big change came last year, prior to Patricia’s arrival. Why the change? Could be a variety of reasons. Stephon Gilmore wasn’t the player he’d been in 2019 when he won Defensive Player of the Year, so perhaps the Patriots didn’t feel as comfortable putting more pressure on the secondary by sending added rushers.

The Patriots were also behind quite a bit in 2020, if you recall, meaning fewer chances to force opposing offenses into passing situations and thus fewer blitz opportunities. The same has been true this year. And they’ve seen some quarterbacks who aren’t very good blitz candidates. And their secondary is less talented than it was a year ago. Add up all those factors, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Patriots were a bottom-third blitz rate team this year.

Could that be because of front-seven personnel? It could but I don’t think so. In some ways, blitzing linebackers is a better way to hide any athletic deficiencies compared to forcing those guys to cover. Could it be Patricia? Potentially. But the Patriots were more passive in terms of their blitz rate going back to 2020, before his return.

It wouldn’t surprise me if JC Jackson ended up on Mike Williams (more a boundary threat) with the Patriots doubling Keenan Allen (who plays inside and out) at every opportunity with Jalen Mills the primary man in coverage. The Patriots like Mills inside, and with Jonathan Jones out, he could be the choice to mirror LA’s best wideout. I know what you’re thinking: Bad matchup if they end up one on one. But if the Patriots can send Mills help on a regular basis, that might be the route they choose. Maybe Myles Bryant gets a few turns inside as well. He has the kind of short-area quickness that could play at the “star” spot in New England’s defense. The Patriots are in a bind at corner and will be trying to make the best of a tough situation for the rest of the season, in all likelihood. 

 

I don’t think so, Jim. Only because it’s been this way for a while. But the mistakes that plagued this team early in the year — the kind of mistakes that have waned over the last couple of weeks — are mistakes we’re not accustomed to seeing from them. It’s not thinness on the sidelines, in my opinion. 

Yes. But when does he get in? Mike Vrabel, Vince Wilfork, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman and Adam Vinatieri need to be at the front of the line. And by the time Gostkowski’s time comes, odds are he’ll get leapfrogged by some who retire after he does. (I can think of two guys in Tampa who may fit that bill.) But yes. He’s deserving.