Patriots

Will the Patriots shadow Zach Ertz with Stephon Gilmore?

Will the Patriots shadow Zach Ertz with Stephon Gilmore?

FOXBORO — Stephon Gilmore's coverage assignments on a week-to-week basis are typically pretty easy to decipher well before the game is played.

Who's the opposing team's best receiver? That's Gilmore's guy. 

The Patriots play about as much man-to-man defense as any team in the league, in part because of their ability to effectively erase one talented option thanks to their No. 1 corner.

But the answer to that question — who does Gilmore have? — is a little more complicated this week. The Eagles have what might be the worst collection of receivers in the NFL. They also happen to have one of the most talented pass-catching tight ends in football in Zach Ertz.

So would the Patriots be willing to stick Gilmore on Ertz? Best corner on best pass-catcher? And would using Gilmore on a receiver, say Alshon Jeffery (if he even plays), qualify as wasting a valuable coverage player? 

The Eagles are preparing for the possibility that Gilmore ends up with the atypical assignment of matching up with a tight end this week.

"We know that they are a match-up defense and that they are going to study us and the matchups and how they relate to their defensive backs, and they are going to match-up Stephon with somebody," said Philly offensive coordinator Mike Groh. "Could be Zach. Talked about that. We certainly know that's a possibility. We won't really know until we get out there, but we know that that's their M.O."

It's a possibility. And it wouldn't come as a mind-blowing surprise for Gilmore to see a snap or two on Ertz. But for Gilmore to shadow Ertz would be unprecedented for him as a member of the Patriots. 

According to Pro Football Focus, Gilmore has been targeted while responsible for a tight end just eight times since joining the Patriots. Two of those came a few weeks ago against the Giants, when Rhett Ellison ran a route into Gilmore's zone. One came back in Week 4, when the Patriots were in a prevent-style look on a third-and-24 snap and Dawson Knox wandered into Gilmore's area. 

Two of Gilmore's tight end targets came against top-tier players in man-to-man coverage: one was on Ertz, in Super Bowl LII, when the Eagles ran three pass-catchers out of a bunch formation and Gilmore had the first player to release outside; the other was on Travis Kelce during last season's AFC title game, when Gilmore aligned over Kelce in the slot and forced a fumble after Kelce made a catch one yard beyond the line of scrimmage (the call was reversed on a Patriots defensive penalty called on J.C. Jackson). 

So Gilmore consistently matching up on a tight end is rare. But Eagles receivers are becoming such an afterthought that using Gilmore on Jeffery or Nelson Agholor might be a misappropriation of assets.

Perhaps there will be instances when the Patriots treat Ertz — who checks in at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds — like a receiver. Devin McCourty admitted on Wednesday that differentiating between when Ertz is a tight end and when he's a receiver makes him a tough cover.

"I think they use two-tight end sets more than really any football team," McCourty said. "The two types of tight ends they have, both those guys are 4.7, 4.6 [40-yard dash] guys. They run great routes. They split out wide. Whether you call it '12' with two tight ends, or is it '11' with three receivers, they have that kind of versatility ... I think you just have to know what we want to do as a defense. Like, we could sub in another group. You don’t know. And as much as you kind of want to have that planned out going into the game, sometimes the game dictates what you end up in. 

"You don’t know how the game’s going to kind of turn out, so we could practice all week like, 'Hey, we’re going to do this,' and then the game kind of develops and we’re like, 'Oh, we don’t like that, let’s do this.' So, I think it’s understanding who’s in the game, what they’re trying to do, and then what we’re trying to do and then mesh all of that together. I mean, it sounds simple, but within that, knowing what they want to do and what we want to do, that’s the tough part about playing in this league."

One option for the Patriots would be to make sure they're fairly certain how Ertz will be used before they send a defender after him. If they know he's going to be running a route, let Gilmore cover him. Ertz has a snap percentage this season that splits his receiver plays (where he runs a route) and his run-blocking snaps at about 60-40. He's clearly more receiver than he is blocker, but the Patriots could wait for obvious passing situations to let him take Ertz.

Another option would be for the Patriots to do what they did in the AFC title game. It was Jackson who saw Kelce for the majority of that game, while Gilmore took Sammy Watkins. Again, Jeffery now might not pose the same kind of threat that Watkins did then. But having a physical man-to-man corner like Jackson chase Ertz around the field could make sense. Jackson was targeted three times while on Kelce in Kansas City, allowing just one catch (a touchdown) for 12 yards.

The Patriots could also double Ertz with a combination of players coming from different positions. The Lions, led by former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, doubled Ertz on third down and in the red zone — something the Patriots have done historically against an opponent's top receiver — and often did so with a defensive back and a linebacker helping out. The same could happen if the Patriots wanted to treat Ertz as a big slot receiver, bracketing him off the line of scrimmage. 

Letting Gilmore shadow Ertz all over the field could be the easiest answer, even if it leaves Gilmore somewhat vulnerable against the run since he'll be an easy target for a player 50 pounds heavier. 

Gilmore has taken big receivers before, including Kelvin Benjamin, who's listed at 6-foot-5, 245-pounds, and siccing him on Ertz might be the simplest way to handle the Eagles passing game. Complicating the coverage plan for Philly's best pass-catcher might be difficult if the Eagles use an up-tempo attack or ask Ertz to align all over the field from one snap to the next; the communication alone might be hard to get straightened out in just a few seconds if that's the case. 

But if the Patriots opt to stick their top corner on a tight end, it'll be the first time they've done so with Gilmore. It's one of the reasons this matchup is one of the most fascinating the Patriots have faced this season.

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If Patriots just did this, the offense would see a big improvement

If Patriots just did this, the offense would see a big improvement

Every week during the NFL season, Tom E. Curran & Phil Perry will go head-to-head and offer their own takes on a Patriots or NFL-related topic. This week: Call me crazy, but if the Patriots would just do THIS offensively, they’d see a big improvement. 

Bang it to the tight ends. So far this season, the Patriots have 26 catches for 349 yards and a touchdown from Benjamin Watson, Matt Lacosse, Ryan Izzo and Eric Tomlinson. The 27 catches have come on 38 total targets. Tomlinson’s long gone and Izzo hasn’t played since Week 6 against the Giants. Lacosse, meanwhile, has missed five games. The 38-year-old Watson has been targeted twice in the past two games but has pulled in 12 of the 17 passes sent his way in the past six weeks. Last season, a dinged-up Rob Gronkowski caught 26 passes for 304 yards by himself and that came on 43 targets. It’s astounding that an offense that’s been as reliant on the tight end as the Patriots has only directed 38 passes to the position through 12 games. Even in 2016, when Gronk missed a big chunk of the year, the team was still able to get 55 catches and 701 yards from Martellus Bennett. I have a feeling the Josh McDaniels has noticed the absence of the tight end in their offense. I’m also sure that part of the reason it hasn’t been anything more than an afterthought is A) they’ve had a revolving door there with Lacosse injured and Watson suspended for the early part of the year; B) they’ve had woeful pass protection especially on the left while Isaiah Wynn was out and needed to keep a tight end in at times and C) they don’t have dynamic players at the spot. But last week, the Patriots got a much-missed seam pass to Lacosse for 23 yards and a 32-yard catch-and-run from Watson. Could that be a motivator to get the ball out there a little more often? Couldn’t hurt.

***

I'm not sure there's anything they can do right now to see a BIG improvement. But there are improvements there to be made, no doubt. I'd focus on the red zone because that's the area of the field where there's the most obvious potential for growth for the Patriots. There really is no reason for the Patriots not to be at least a little more effective at scoring touchdowns when they get inside the 20. They're currently 24th in the NFL when it comes to red-zone efficiency at 48.89 percent. That's a tick below bad offensive football teams like the Giants (53.12 percent, 22nd), Bears (59.46 percent, 14th), Bills (63.64 percent, 9th) and Dolphins (67.74 percent, 4th). How do they improve? Go big. Go bigger in the passing game. Get those tight ends you mention, Tom, out there and allow them to use their bodies to post up on defenders in an area of the field where space is tight. Use N'Keal Harry, even if it's only as a specialty player in there, because he knows how to make a back-shoulder catch. Maybe give Phillip Dorsett and Jakobi Meyers a breather when you're in there. And go big in the running game deep in opponent territory. Multiple tight ends. Maybe an extra offensive lineman at times. Since Isaiah Wynn's return, and since LaCosse has been healthy enough to be a factor as a blocker, the run game has improved. Especially out of two-tight end sets. In the last two weeks, they've run for 4.2 yards per carry out of 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends). That number was 3.4 yards per carry in Weeks 2-11 without Wynn. They picked up 3.3 yards per carry in games without Wynn this year, whereas they've averaged 4.4 yards per carry the past two weeks -- regardless of personnel package. They should be able to run it closer to the goal line with the offensive line and tight end spots healthier. And if they prove they can do that, that'll open up the play-action passing game down there. Poof. Just like that, the red-zone offense will be better and the Patriots will see more points on the scoreboard as a result.

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That 617 Life Podcast: Who made who? Bill Belichick or Tom Brady

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NBC Sports Boston Illustration

That 617 Life Podcast: Who made who? Bill Belichick or Tom Brady

The people's court is now in session. The topic of debate: Who made who, Bill Belichick or Tom Brady?

The two New England Patriots greats will always be inextricably linked for the success they've had in creating the Patriots dynasty. Together, the duo has won six Super Bowl titles and has overseen the most dominant two-decade stretch in NFL history.

Still, the question of who is chiefly responsible for the team's success has long been a debate among the New England faithful. And this week, Shanda, Cerrone, and Leroy take a deeper dive into the case for both sides on the latest episode of "That 617 Life Podcast".

Cerrone kicks off the "trial" by defending Brady, arguing that his on-field play and his arrival to the team snapped the Patriots out of the funk that they were in for most of the early part of their franchise's existence.

[The Patriots] were the team that nobody wanted to use in TecmoBowl. Now, for everybody in America, you're cheating if you use Tom Brady in Madden.

Furthermore, from Cerrone:

There's teams in the NFL over the past 20 years that still haven't defeated Tom Brady. Still, over 20 seasons. There are organizations and fan bases that still have not seen a victory in front of Tom Brady.

As for the case for Belichick, Leroy laid out a simple case for Belichick and called him "possibly the greatest coach in sports history."

Hear more of the trial and thoughts on the latest Boston sports stories on the latest episode of the "That 617 Life Podcast", which drops every Friday as part of the NBC Sports Boston podcast network.

CURRAN: Are we watching Brady's final day with the Patriots?>>>

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