Patriots

Patriots Mailbag: If Patriots stand pat at deadline, that a sign they believe in N'Keal Harry?

Patriots Mailbag: If Patriots stand pat at deadline, that a sign they believe in N'Keal Harry?

A Friday mailbag for a Sunday without Patriots foot. Every week I'll be answering your questions be they Patriots-related, NFL-related or otherwise. This week, the focus for many of you was -- no surprise -- the injury situation. We'll start there...

I'd imagine the Patriots would act quickly to add a capable tight end, Harry. Ben Watson is still available. Bill Belichick didn't rule out the possibility that Watson would be back, and maybe the latest injury to Matt LaCosse will push them to act. Whether it's Watson or someone else. Ryan Izzo had his best game of the season in a reduced role, blocking on the move, being used as a safety-valve receiver. If they can get him back into that niche, that might be the best thing for them. 

N'Keal Harry has been working behind the scenes with fellow rookie wideouts Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski as though he's returning, Karen. I'd think he's a safe choice to be back given the overall health of the receiving group. Isaiah Wynn also is a logical returnee. Both, if healthy enough to contribute, would carry greater value than bringing back either fullback. Harry can begin practicing this week. The Patriots will have a chance to evaluate him in practice first before having to activate him to the 53-man roster. The earliest he could play is Week 9. 

Pixie, I think the positive sign is the fact that Olszewski and Meyers played as much as they did without any obvious mental errors or negative plays. They caught almost everything thrown their way (six of seven combined targets were reeled in), and they weren't flagged for anything. It looked as though they aligned out of the huddle without issue. And both were in good enough shape -- even without getting many practice snaps -- to handle every play in the second half. Their preparation should be lauded. More performances like that one should allow Brady to trust them a little more, particularly Meyers, who showed promise in training camp but has seen his practice reps diminished with Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon -- both of whom missed most of the summer -- back in the mix.

As far as a tight end who'd make sense in New England via trade? What's difficult for the Patriots is that teams around the league are embracing 12-personnel packages more and more, it seems, and so they want two starting-caliber players at that position in order to take advantage of the mismatches inherent to those formations. But someone like Austin Hooper, of the fading Falcons, would make plenty of sense. He'd be more of a pass-catching option as opposed to a Dwayne Allen type. Dwayne Allen himself -- who was released by the Dolphins this summer with an injury settlement -- would make some sense if Bill Belichick wanted someone who's going to make an impact in the running game. 

It could be, T. They'll have two weeks to work with Harry out on the practice fields before the Oct. 29 trade deadline. If they love what they see, they might be less willing to part with a high-end draft choice in a trade. But I think there's a chance that even if Harry looks great, they'd be in on a pass-catcher -- whether it's a wideout or tight end. Between backs, tight ends and receivers, the Patriots would ideally have five guys they can count on as receiving options in crunch time. Right now they have one healthy crunch-time passing back (James White) and no one at tight end. They have a banged-up Julian Edelman, a banged-up Josh Gordon and a banged-up Phillip Dorsett. Even if Harry works his way into that top-five, you could make the argument that they still have room for one more given all the injuries.

Good question, Steve. Teams are required to notify the league office that a player they're planning to have at practice has been "Designated for Return." They're allowed to do that with two players on IR (or on NFI, like Yodny Cajuste). Once a player begins to practice, that starts a 21-day clock for the returning player's team to either activate him or shut him down for the season.

Of course. It'd take two to tango, obviously. The Patriots would deal him if they felt it made the team better. Given his dwindling snap counts, it'd come as little surprise if they decided to trade him -- even if it was primarily to free-up cap space. Bennett is a bit of an odd scheme fit with the Patriots using more of a 3-4 scheme this year. He's really a 4-3 end who can pass-rush from the interior. But as an interior pass-rusher, he's more of a penetrator, and with the Patriots seeing mobile quarterbacks almost every week, penetrating -- slicing through the line -- isn't always as highly valued as someone who can push the pocket and maintain his rush-lane integrity. Bennett still has a load of pass-rush talent, though, and his playing time rollercoaster could end up resembling the path taken by players like Jabaal Sheard, Alan Branch and even Danny Shelton. All were healthy scratches at some point despite being among the most talented defensive linemen on Bill Belichick's roster over the years. After being scratched for non-injury related reasons, they all came back to play important roles thereafter, assumedly after they made changes asked of them by the coaching staff.

https://twitter.com/How9876543210/status/1182623534515929088?s=20  

The Patriots knew all along that Bailey would have the ability to kick if needed. That upped his value in their eyes. I think the punting alone -- his ability to flip the field has been on display multiple times already this season -- would've been enough to win him the punter's job though. He simply has a bigger leg than Allen, which has paid early dividends for the Patriots.

https://twitter.com/strangebrew17/status/1182624309212303362?s=20 

He's been around, Matthew. And he's been meeting with the team. In my story from Thursday night on the "virtual room" being used by young Pats wideouts, I pointed out that Harry has been in there working with his fellow rookie receivers.

https://twitter.com/Phil_Me_Up_/status/1182626079267344390?s=20 

Think you can chalk that up to the matchups, Phil. The Patriots did just play on Thursday night, though. They had the late Steelers game for the opener. They play Monday night in Jersey in a week. Then you've got an 8:20 p.m. game in Baltimore Week 9 and another Week 13 in Houston. Also in the mix are a whole mess of 4:25 p.m. games: Week 8, Week 11, Week 12 and Week 14. 

I think Jamie Collins would make a mean tight end. Maybe JC Jackson, if they need a wideout? Devin McCourty told me last year that Jackson is the best tracker of the football they've had in the secondary since McCourty's been here.

https://twitter.com/PeterBruschi357/status/1182667402359783424?s=20 

Get Isaiah Wynn back in a few weeks. His cap is still on the books while he's on IR. That's the easiest solution, and it'd represent a significant upgrade. 

Changing offensive line. Inconsistent performance at tight end relative to the last few years. Running back quickness. I think they're all part of the issue. Hard to blame Sony Michel for not getting much when there isn't much space for him to work with. The flip-side to that argument is this: If Michel can't get yards without help from his blockers, doesn't that make him like just about any replacement-level back in the league? It's kind of the how-much-do-running-backs-really-matter argument in a nutshell. The special talents at that position are the ones who can create yards on their own anywhere on the field and contribute in the passing game. Everyone else? Their success at that position is largely dependent on the situation around them.

You can understand why the Patriots like Rex Burkhead as much as they do. Though he's dealt with injury throughout the course of his Patriots tenure, he's quick enough to make defenders miss when the offensive line doesn't give him a lane, and he's a more-than-capable receiver. Through four games before Burkhead's injury, he was averaging 4.7 yards per carry behind the same offensive line that blocked for Michel, who was averaging 2.8 yards per carry through that same span.

Indications are that Develin's injury will keep him out for the season, Kyle.

Joel, if they find one they think will be able to learn the offense, I think they'd be happy to have that element as part of their attack. If they don't, I think you could see the Patriots use a tight end in the fullback's place. We saw it a bit on Thursday. Ryan Allen motioned from his spot at tight end and into the backfield on multiple occasions to lead the way for a runner. 

The Patriots brought in Austin Collie as veteran receiver help in October of 2013. They claimed Michael Floyd in December of 2016. They obviously brought Deion Branch back for a second go-round in October of 2010. It's been done before. The Collie and Floyd signings clearly weren't game-changers, but there are some bigger names who could be had this year -- Emmanuel Sanders is the one that makes the most sense to me -- who I'd think would make a quick impact. 

Meyers has impressed since the day he arrived, but I think they understand that they'd be putting themselves in a better spot if they have someone with a little more experience to complement what they already have on the roster. Meyers could be on a path to have a Malcolm Mitchell-type role by the end of the season -- that wouldn't shock me in the least. But, remember, Mitchell was behind Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, James White, Martellus Bennett and Chris Hogan as pass-catchers on the roster that year. You might even be able to include Dion Lewis on that list. They didn't ask the rookie to be a No. 3 or 4 option. I think they'd like to not have to do the same with Meyers. 

I'm thinking 2003? Led by the defense. Questions offensively. Can't go with 2001 because they had a rookie quarterback and this version of that guy is still one of the best in the league. And I can't go with 2004, even that's the team everyone is comparing this current group to because of the great defenses. In 2004, they had Corey Dillon and a dominant run game. Not the case this year. Great question, though, Damian. Curious as to what you all think about that one. 

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Tom Brady oozes disappointment after Patriots offense struggles vs. Eagles

Tom Brady oozes disappointment after Patriots offense struggles vs. Eagles

PHILADELPHIA — Tom Brady’s temporary home at Lincoln Financial Field was on the far wall of the visitor’s locker room, last spot on the left.

When we media slithered into the locker room at about 7:58 p.m., there was a travel bag perched on the folding chair in front of his locker but no Brady. Not terribly unusual. Sometimes he’s there, sometimes he’s not. Eventually, though, he’ll wander through, pluck his stuff and head for the interview room.

Except, this time he didn’t. In the 20 minutes we were wandered around collecting insights from his teammates, there was no sign of him.

When Brady stepped to the podium at 8:29 p.m., he barely had any expression on his face at all. Eyebrows slanted down, mouth set, eyes slowly surveying the room to field questions he answered in a voice barely above a murmur after the Patriots 17-10 win.

Despondent Tom and the Otherwise Happy 52. Brady answered questions without elaboration. There were no, “Good to be 9-1…” “Tough to win on the road…” platitudes. He wasn’t looking to put a dollop of whipped cream on an offensive performance that he likely felt looked like crap.

This is the transcript of Brady’s media session provided by the Eagles media relations crew.

Q: On struggles in the red zone:
TB: “Yeah, yeah. I don’t have anymore. I don’t know.”

Q: On whether there is a way to remedy it or if it’s just about practicing and execution:
TB: “Yeah, I think that’s right. Practice and execution.”

Q: On the offense at this point of the year:
TB: “Up and down. That’s what it looks like to me. We could probably do everything better.”

Q: On how he would describe their defense:
TB: “They are doing a great job. Keeping us in every game.”

Q: On whether he is discouraged:
TB: “Well, we just played for three hours. So I think everyone is a little tired.”

Q: On battling and games like this late in the season:
TB: “Yeah, it’s good to win. It’s good to win. Go on the road and win is always tough. They all count the same. But anytime you go on the road and beat a good team is a good feeling.”

Q: On whether he is concerned about the offense or if it’ll work its way out:
TB: “I don’t think it matters what I think, it matters what we do.”

Q: On how much WR Julian Edelman reminds him of his [Edelman’s] passer rating:
TB: “Not much. It was a good throw. So thank you guys.”

The Patriots were 5 for 16 on third down, 1 for 3 in the red zone and punted eight times. Brady threw 47 times for 216 yards. That’s 4.6 yards per attempt. He's only been under 5 YPA three times since the start of 2014, and it's happened twice this year — at Buffalo and at Philly.

A would-be touchdown pass was dropped by Julian Edelman. A couple of would-be picks were dropped by Eagles defenders including one where Brady airmailed James White on a screen pass.

For the third time this season, Brady completed less than 56 percent of his passes. He hasn’t had more than three games with a completion percentage lower than 56 percent since 2006. He’s got six games to go with an offense that’s spinning its wheels when it tries to run and has to work way too hard to get anything done through the air.

The last time Brady went against an Eagles defense he threw for 505. Five. Oh. Five. Seems like a long, long time ago.

The Patriots won this game thanks to defense, special teams, field position and their ability to avoid penalties and turnovers.

Brady’s bound to come in for a pile of criticism this week for being bummed out after a win. On one level, that makes sense. A whole lot of his teammates played great and the team’s most important player looks like his dog got run over.

On the other side of it, after 20 seasons, Brady knows what good offensive football looks like. The Patriots aren’t playing it now and barely have all season. There are no signs that they are about to become potent. Brady knows that games when an opponent is going to be full strength and capable of hanging 30 on his defense are inevitable. Can he help them keep pace? He’s said in the past he’s at the stage where he now feels he has the answers to the test. Only problem is, with this offense, he’s taking the test without a pencil.

They’re running sprintout passes to the right to keep Brady away from blindside pressure from the left. They averaged 3.4 yards per carry on the ground (22 carries, 74 yards). It’s the ninth time in 11 games they averaged 3.5 yards per carry or less. Brady completed 10 passes that were at or behind the line of scrimmage. He completed 13 that were between one and 10 yards past the line of scrimmage.  

As the Patriots left the field, Bill Belichick called to Brady to “laud him for doing a good job” and clapped Brady on the chest, according to Mike Giardi of NFL Media.

As Brady left the interview room, he pulled up the hood on his sweatshirt. He walked past rubbernecking security and stadium personnel. He never broke stride as people called his name. Head down, he silently marched straight toward the Patriots bus and out of Philadelphia.

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'He was crying' to officials: Patriots, Stephon Gilmore frustrate Eagles' Zach Ertz

'He was crying' to officials: Patriots, Stephon Gilmore frustrate Eagles' Zach Ertz

PHILADELPHIA — Zach Ertz's numbers looked good. And Ertz fantasy owners were likely very pleased with what Ertz provided on Sunday, catching nine passes on 11 targets for 94 yards.

But, as one of the only viable receiving options in the Eagles offensive huddle, the Patriots rendered Ertz's contributions largely meaningless. Without starting receivers Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson, the Patriots were able to focus on Ertz and help stymie the Philadelphia passing game. Carson Wentz completed 20 of his 40 attempts for 214 yards and a touchdown. Including the five sacks he absorbed, Wentz averaged just 3.9 yards per dropback.

Despite the injuries to his offensive unit, Eagles coach Doug Pederson believed they'd be able to muster more than that paltry figure in their 17-10 defeat. 

"We feel like," Pederson said, "with Zach and Dallas [Goedert], we can do some things . . . Listen, give them credit. They did a nice job on defense kind of taking those players away. We knew that coming into this game, and we just didn't make enough plays."

Ertz, in particular, was kept quiet early on. 

He caught three passes for 16 yards, none of which resulted in first downs, through the first quarter. He helped get the Eagles out of the shadow of their own end zone during their long first-half touchdown drive, but didn't touch the football beyond his team's 26-yard line on that series.

In the second quarter, Ertz caught back-to-back passes for 20 yards, but the Eagles punted two plays later. Ertz caught one pass in the third quarter for one yard, bringing his three-quarter total to six catches, 37 yards.

At one point, it looked like Patriots coverages were starting to get to him. 

On Philadelphia's final third-down snap of the third quarter, Patriots corner Stephon Gilmore provided physical one-on-one man-to-man coverage. Wentz went elsewhere with the football, the pass fell incomplete, and Ertz appealed to the closest official for a penalty flag. He didn't get one, and then he and Gilmore exchanged words as the Eagles punt team took the field. 

"He was crying," Gilmore said. "He do that on film a lot. If you get into him. If he don't get the ball or he don't get a call, he'll cry. But he's a good receiver. He's a good tight end. He's a great player . . . He's a great player, but when he don't get his way, he'll complain to the ref. But who don't do that?"

The Patriots plan for Ertz was, essentially, to have Gilmore take Ertz when he was clearly going to be a receiver — second-and-long, third downs, obvious passing situations late in the game with the Eagles trying to come back. Gilmore had Ertz in man-to-man on a second-and-eight play early in the game, but then Ertz was bracketed on the subsequent third down and Gilmore took receiver Jordan Matthews. Jonathan Jones took Ertz on a first-down snap early in the game. Safeties Devin McCourty and Terrence Brooks had Ertz at different points in the game as well.

It was a varied plan, one that the Patriots were able to execute thanks to their polished system of communication.

"It's from coaching down," Gilmore said. "Sometimes I was gonna be on him. Sometimes the safeties was gonna be on him. You can't line up in one thing the whole time. You gotta keep them thinking. That's one thing we did today. He didn't know who was gonna be on him at certain times. It helped out a lot."

Gilmore also had the benefit of getting the occasional chip at the line of scrimmage on Ertz. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower, playing on the edge, knocked Ertz off of his route immediately during a third-and-nine play and Gilmore took him from there. 

Though Ertz is essentially a 6-foot-5, 250-pound receiver in certain situations, Gilmore said he couldn't play him like the receivers he typically shadows on a weekly basis. 

"I gotta slow myself down a little bit because they're so slow," Gilmore said of covering tight ends. "But they're big and they push off a lot. Just gotta slow myself down a little bit because I'm used to covering faster guys. If I do that, I can play them pretty tight . . . "

"You can see it on film. Ertz is a fast guy, but like I said, I've guarded faster guys. I gotta really slow down and not get on top like I play receivers. Let him beat me a little bit. If I play on top he'll push me off. That's the game plan I had."

Ertz came alive late in the game, catching three of five targets in the fourth quarter for 57 yards and three first downs as the Eagles pushed the pace. Philly had a chance to tie it late with a heave to Nelson Agholor on fourth down, but it bounced off of Agholor's hands and to the turf. 

The fact that Ertz wasn't the one to be the target with Wentz looking for a critical strike meant that, in some respects, despite what the box score would tell you, the Patriots did what they wanted with Philly's top offensive weapon. 

Brooks, who played for the Eagles in 2016, said having some experience seeing Ertz in practice years ago might've helped him Sunday. He played 35 snaps on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus, which was his second-highest total of the season. With Patrick Chung inactive due to injury, Brooks stepped into an increased role.

"That comes with film study and practice reps and things like that and for the most part confidence," Brooks said of taking Ertz. "You gotta be confident that whoever lines up across from you, you can take him on. I was up for the challenge, man. I was excited about it. That's one of the best tight ends in the game. I was very happy to get that chance to keep going against him . . . 

"He made some nice catches, other ones with tight coverage. But I give it to him. I got a lot of respect for that guy and what he does in this league, but I feel like it's on me, whoever I line up across, to shut them down. That's my mindset every time."

Ertz wasn't totally shut down. His final stats would suggest as much. But he was shut down on third down (zero catches) and in the red zone (zero catches). He didn't have a catch in Patriots territory. 

Whether it was Brooks in coverage or Gilmore or McCourty, or someone else, the Patriots took Ertz away when Wentz needed him most and won. No matter what the box score says, they'll take that.

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