The Patriots have faced a slew of talented tight ends already this season, and there's a trend that has emerged.
While they've thrown a variety of defenders at players like Raiders tight end Darren Waller and Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce through the first month of the season, those two players saw a corner in coverage on third downs. In Week 3 against Vegas and Week 4 against Kansas City, it was second-year corner Joejuan Williams who drew both star tight ends in man-to-man. In Week 1, Williams was matched up on Miami tight end Mike Gesicki, who is more a big receiver than a true tight end.
But Williams was flagged for two penalties while in coverage of Waller. Against the Chiefs, he was trailing in coverage when Kelce pulled in a 45-yarder. In both games, rookie Kyle Dugger ended up seeing some time on the opponent's star tight end.
How the Patriots plan to handle George Kittle when the 49ers visit Gillette Stadium is one of the week's major storylines. Dugger figured to be a factor. He's the kind of rangy, explosive athlete who could be a nice matchup weapon for a tough cover like Kittle.
But now that Friday's injury report has been released, Dugger's availability to the Patriots defense Sunday is up in the air. He's been listed as questionable for Sunday with an ankle injury.
Defensive lineman Adam Butler (shoulder), receiver Julian Edelman (knee), guard Shaq Mason (calf) and outside linebacker Derek Rivers (back) are also questionable. Defensive lineman Carl Davis (concussion) has been ruled out.
But the fact that Dugger could miss Sunday is a potential wrench in Bill Belichick's coverage plan against Jimmy Garoppolo and his set of weapons. The Niners use more two-back sets than any offense in football, which could require the Patriots -- who've used safety Adrian Phillips as a linebacker this season -- to take a defensive back off the field and insert a linebacker.
What makes Dugger an intriguing option for Kittle in those heavier packages is that he -- more so than a corner like Williams -- would be able to hold up against run plays in the box at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds. If the Patriots want to deploy linebackers to run with San Francisco's backs, they'll be better suited to play the run. And using an athletic safety on Kittle instead of a defensive back would accomplish the same goal of being ready for the run against a team that is top-10 (tied with the Patriots) for rushing attempts this season while also being athletic enough to compete in coverage.
Dugger ended up seeing Broncos tight end Albert Okwuegbunam in coverage for a few snaps last weekend, though -- like Gesicki -- he was more of a big receiver than a true tight end which helped explain why Jonathan Jones saw Okwuegbunam in coverage so frequently.
Kittle is a different beast, though.
Whether Dugger is in uniform Sunday or not, covering Kittle likely won't be a one-man job. Still, physically, the rookie out of Division 2 Lenoir-Rhyne might be the best choice to be a consistent part coverage equation for a size-and-speed freak like Kittle. If Dugger can't play, that could make an already-difficult matchup for the Patriots a little tougher.