Will Tyrod Taylor's athleticism drum up old issues for Patriots defense?


Will Tyrod Taylor's athleticism drum up old issues for Patriots defense?

FOXBORO -- Seems like a long time ago now, but think back if you can to a point in time when the Patriots defense was less stingy, back when they had a hell of a time trying to slow mobile quarterbacks.

From Week 1 to Week 6, Bill Belichick's defense was a lock to allow 300 yards passing. Athletic passers like Alex Smith, Deshaun Watson, Cam Newton -- even Josh McCown -- gave them fits. 


Now, as they prepare to take on another talented athlete at the position in Bills signal-caller Tyrod Taylor, it's worth wondering if those same issues will reemerge.

As spotty as New England's recent history against athletic quarterbacks has been, in Taylor's career against Belichick, he's 1-4, he's completed 61 percent of his passes, he has a 76.5 rating and a 1-to-1 touchdown-to-interception. Given the growth the Patriots defense has exhibited in recent weeks, and given their history against Taylor . . . they should be OK.

But Belichick's concerned.

To hear him explain it, it's not only Taylor's threat to run that makes him dangerous. It's his ability to avoid pressure, allow receivers to uncover, and to pick up chunk plays on what look like playground calls. 

"We want to try to keep him out of those situations as much as possible," Belichick said Wednesday. "We don’t want him extending the play. He’s a lot better at extending the plays than we are. Inevitably, those are going to come up and we're going to have to defend them. The more that we can limit those loose plays, extended plays, I think the better off we'll be. 

"I don’t think you can eliminate them completely, but we certainly aren’t looking to get into those situations. Go back, let him run around, let him extend the play and see if we can defend it. We're certainly not trying to do that and no team has been very successful with that with him. He’s very good. If you don’t let him run laterally and throw the ball, he can run up the middle and run the ball and he’s hard to tackle."

So the question then is what do you do with him? If you want to avoid those extended plays, if you want to keep him from taking off and hurting you with his legs, then what? Spy him, right?

Belichick pounced on that thought before it was even brought up.

"I'll ask the questions before you guys ask it, 'Why don't we just put a mirror on him?' Oh yeah, great, that’s fine," Belichick said. "You’ve still got to tackle him and that’s an issue. Plenty of teams have put a spy on him and then he beats the spy and there’s nobody left, and so it’s 20, 30 yards. To just throw a spy on him, that’s not really the answer. You’ve got to do it right and he’s got to be able to get him and he’s got to get him."

The best athlete for that kind of job might be Devin McCourty, who has found himself in the box as a strong safety more and more this season. Maybe Kyle Van Noy, who has been a jack-of-all-trades and showed good skills in space against the Dolphins, will be an option. 

That there's no real clear-cut answer on how to deal with Taylor's movement -- other than the obvious: keep him in the pocket -- is a reminder that this group that hasn't really been tested the way it was through the first six weeks of the season, when a mobile quarterback seemed to be on the docket every week.

They'll have their crack at another one on Sunday. If they can't contain him better than Smith, Watson or Newton, what should be a walk in Orchard Park could feel like ride down I-90 with the brakes cut.

Five non-Brady storylines to track as Patriots host Eagles in Week 2 of preseason

Five non-Brady storylines to track as Patriots host Eagles in Week 2 of preseason

Thursday night should be Tom Brady's night. That's the plan, at least, according to him. 

That's not to say he'll have the spotlight all to himself against the Eagles, or that that's what he wants. But if he plays at all, there will be boatloads of attention paid to every snap he receives. They'll be his first plays he gets against another opponent since Super Bowl LII, and they'll just so happen to come against the team that beat him back in February. 

We went over the various aspects of Brady's night we'll be watching closely here, if Bill Belichick decides he wants Brady to play at all. But we can't train our focus on No. 12 in blue all night, and we know you won't either. So here are five more storylines -- non-Brady storylines -- to track when the Patriots host the Eagles at Gillette Stadium. 


Eric Decker had one of the worst starts to a practice of any Patriots receiver this summer just a few days ago. He pushed off in a one-on-one drill. He dropped a pass in a one-on-one drill. Soon thereafter, he dropped two more passes when there wasn't a defender in sight. Not what you're looking for. Decker did, however, bounce back. And for him that was encouraging. Thursday will give the newest Patriots receiver another opportunity to show that he's gaining in his understanding of the playbook. If that's coming along, the fundamentals -- like playing penalty-free and catching the football -- should follow. Given the state of the receiver position in Foxboro at the moment, the Patriots may need to lean on Decker more than they would like. They'll certainly give him some time to figure things out, but he'll have to continue to show progress, as he did during that up-and-down (or down-and-up) session earlier in the week. 


There's an opportunity here. The Patriots have gone without both Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead for the last handful of practices, meaning there will be reps galore for the likes of Mike Gillislee, Jeremy Hill, Ralph Webb and Brandon Bolden. All four (plus James White) saw action offensively in the preseason opener against the Redskins. Of that group, I think the most fascinating battle is between Gillislee and Hill. It was Hill who looked the strongest last week (51 yards on 11 carries), but he looked limited at times in practice this week. Is he dealing with something that could drop his snap count Thursday? Will that leave the door open for Gillislee, who had a ho-hum night (43 yards on 14 carries) last week? Hill looks like the more capable pass-catcher and the more kicking-game friendly (three first-team special teams units against Washington) back at the moment. 


The Patriots held Jason McCourty out of preseason game No. 1. He didn't have much of an answer as to why that was the case, but he didn't seem too concerned when he spoke to reporters on Sunday. On Monday and Tuesday, he was taking snaps with the first-team defense. Will that continue to be the case against the Eagles? McCourty could be in the running for the No. 2 corner role -- Eric Rowe has held that down for most of camp -- and might be able to use a strong performance against Philly as a springboard to greater consideration from the coaching staff to be a starter. In competitive periods Monday and Tuesday, McCourty looked good. He picked off a Brian Hoyer pass intended for Phillip Dorsett in one-on-ones and broke up another intended for Rob Gronkowski near the goal line. He said he's been doing his best to teach the young corners he's in competition with -- JC Jackson, Keion Crossen and Ryan Lewis have all stood out at different points this summer -- but Thursday could be his night. 


Inside the Patriots facilities, Ja'Whaun Bentley has an argument as the most pleasantly surprising player of training camp. As a fifth-round pick, he wasn't guaranteed a roster spot . . . but he now seems to have a jump on one. After a strong performance against Washington -- where he showcased good instincts, an ability to relay play-calls, confident pre-snap communication, and competency in coverage -- we landed him on our first 53-man roster projection and highlighted his skill set in our "Long Shot" series. A three-year captain at Purdue, Bentley isn't a next-level athlete, but he has the potential to be a middle-of-the-defense voice on a unit that could be enticed to deploy its best communicator, Dont'a Hightower, on the edge. "Eager to learn," Hightower said of Bentley this week. "He’s really become a sponge. First dude in the classroom, last one out, always asking questions. Nice-sized kid, good on his feet. He’s going to be a good ballplayer."


The Patriots had nine missed tackles against the Redskins last week, and two more were wiped out due to penalties. That kind of thing will drive a coaching staff nuts, but in some ways it's to be expected this time of year. In camp, the Patriots almost never have any periods where players are tackled to the ground. (Goal-line run periods are probably the closest thing to "live" for Belichick's club, and those 22-car pile-ups are rare.) The result is a team that's not accustomed to tackling, trying to tackle in a preseason game that (for some) doesn't really matter. It can get ugly out there, and Belichick knows it. "Running and tackling are two skills that you don’t work on from the end of the season until pretty much the first preseason game. You can do a little drill work, but it’s not quite the same. So, any player that’s involved in any of those, running or tackling, they might have done it before, but they haven’t done it recently, and they haven’t done it at the timing and speed that it occurs in the game. So, there’s an adjustment, a break-in period for all of us, and that’s part of what preseason games are for . . . We can improve our tackling. We can certainly improve our running and breaking tackles. So, that’s part of the process."


NBC Sports Boston Breakfast Pod: What to expect from Tom Brady in his first preseason action of the season

NBC Sports Boston Photo

NBC Sports Boston Breakfast Pod: What to expect from Tom Brady in his first preseason action of the season

1:22 - Trenni, Chris Gasper, and Phil Perry preview the Patriots/Eagles game and discuss what they are most interested in seeing from Tom Brady in his first preseason action of the season.

6:04 - Tom Curran and Paul Perillo join Tom Giles on Boston Sports Tonight to break down Jaguars CB Jalen Ramsey’s comments about how Jacksonville should have trusted Blake Bortles more in the AFC Championship game against the Patriots. 

10:00 - Trenni, Gasper, and Perry talk about Lane Johnson continuing to bring up the Patriots and their fans as he prepares for the preseason game in Foxboro.