Elandon Roberts

How Patriots defense could struggle with Amari Cooper, Cowboys' receivers

How Patriots defense could struggle with Amari Cooper, Cowboys' receivers

The New England Patriots will face one of their toughest opponents of the season in the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday afternoon.

While the offense continues to struggle, frustrating Tom Brady, the defense has been a game-changer throughout the campaign -- helping New England eke out a 17-10 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles last weekend. 

The only time the defense really struggled this season was when it allowed 37 points to the Lamar Jackson-led Baltimore Ravens in Week 9. With a similar offensive style to the Ravens, Dallas could potentially shred the Patriots defense if given the opportunity.

Wide receivers Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Randall Cobb and Tavon Austin have combined for 141 catches, 2,149 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. 37-year-old tight end Jason Witten also has 41 receptions for 371 yards and two TDs.

None of those receivers would be having such great seasons if it weren't for quarterback Dak Prescott. The 26-year-old's 3,221 passing yards lead all NFL quarterbacks, and his 21 touchdowns rank second behind Russell Wilson -- he'll be just as dangerous, if not more dangerous than the receivers.

The combination of speed and skill the offense brings to the Cowboys' lineup has caused Patriots' cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino to take notice. 

“These guys can keep you up at night,” Pellegrino said of Dallas' wide receivers on a Tuesday conference call. 

And it's no surprise as to why Dallas ranks first in total yards per game and sixth in scoring. So, the Prescott-led Cowboys could potentially cause New England some problems -- and Pellegrino alluded to that. 

“We’ve got Cooper, Cobb, Gallup and then you’ve got Austin,” Pellegrino said. “Starting with the coaching staff over there, they’ve done a great job with these guys – the OC, [Kellen] Moore, and the wide receiver coach, Sanjay [Lal]. ... We’ve got our work cut out for us this week and we’re excited for the opportunity to go against these guys. It should be a good challenge for us.”

Although they pose a challenge, the Patriots also have a few notable players with some pretty impressive stats on the defensive side of the ball. Devin McCourty is tied for first in the NFL with five interceptions, while Jamie Collins and Stephon Gilmore (among others) are tied for fifth with three. 

It's clear that Sunday's matchup will be a good one -- especially considering the two are leading their respective divisions. 

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Patriots Mailbag: Why send Michael Bennett to Dallas ahead of Pats-Cowboys matchup?

Patriots Mailbag: Why send Michael Bennett to Dallas ahead of Pats-Cowboys matchup?

The Friday Bag is back, friends. 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 Michael Bennett trade. We'll start there...

Hey, Mark! In all likelihood, it was the return. The Patriots and Cowboys will meet in a month, but better that than trading him to an AFC contender they may see in the playoffs. (A non-contender in either conference probably wouldn't be interested in picking up Bennett's contract.) I don't know if the Patriots had narrowed their potential trade partners to NFC contenders only, but if they did, the Cowboys made a lot of sense because he's an easy fit in their scheme. The haul wasn't great, obviously, but the Patriots were in a bit of a bind. Bennett was barely playing. Teams knew Bennett wasn't happy. Belichick and Nick Caserio didn't appear to have much leverage in trade negotiations. Getting a Day 3 pick and some cap relief... Beggars can't be choosers. Call it the Patriots just trying to make the best of a bad situation. 

Great question, Robert. First, let's just do a quick Cover-0 review. That's when the defense does not have a safety deep, there's an all-out blitz coming, and defenders are in man-to-man coverage across the board. The Patriots have turned to their Cover-0 looks quite a bit through the first seven games, often deploying that defense against young quarterbacks who are forced to make quick decisions with the football before the pressure gets home. Bill Belichick and his defensive staff called for Cover 0 -- also known as the "zero blitz" -- time and time again against Sam Darnold, toying with him once it was clear he was uncomfortable. I reached out to our friends at Pro Football Focus to give us an idea of just how often the Patriots have called on Cover 0. According to PFF, they're running that call 12 percent of the time (34 total snaps). Last year, including playoffs, they were at 9 percent. That may come down as the Patriots face talented passers like Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes later in the season, but it's clear Belichick and his coaches trust their secondary to plaster in coverage and prevent any big plays while in Cover 0. That's the risk. If the quarterback has enough time to get the ball out, if the catch is made, and if a tackle is missed, it could go for a touchdown with no safety. But the Patriots have a sound tackling secondary and arguably the best group of man-to-man cover corners in the game. PFF's Mike Renner wrote Thursday that the Patriots are allowing just 5.1 yards per attempt while in man this year and a 51 percent completion percentage. While in Cover 0 specifically, the Patriots have allowed a 12.4 passer rating. Ridiculous. It might not be a great defense against a team with big-play wideouts like the Browns and receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, but it's certainly a big part of what the Patriots do and a big part of why they've been as successful as they've been. 

The Patriots have cleared a little bit of cap space over the last few days. They restructured Shaq Mason's deal. They traded Michael Bennett. They aren't swimming in cap room by any means, but they should have enough to swing a trade if they want to (They also might have about $1 million coming off their books after the trade deadline if Josh Gordon and his contract get claimed on waivers). If they are looking for a low-cost option at tight end, Tyler Eifert is relatively interesting. We know he's been consistently banged-up over the last few years. But he'd be very inexpensive -- half a season would cost the Patriots about $500,000 -- and he played his college ball at Notre Dame for Charlie Weis so there may be some familiarity with the terminology the Patriots use. Lance Kendricks might make sense after he spent the summer with the team. He's played only four snaps for the Chargers over the last two weeks. He'd be Ben Watson insurance. If the Patriots wanted to poke around on a more valuable Chargers tight end, Virgil Green might make some sense. He's played 23 and 11 snaps in his last two games and is taking a back seat to starter Hunter Henry. His cap hit would be about $1.25 million for half a season. The Chargers (2-5) would, of course, have to be comfortable selling off a piece to the team that ended their 2018 season. Chargers GM Tom Telesco is a John Carroll University football guy. 

Hey, Ed. I think there were a number of things at play when it came to Josh Gordon being placed on IR. We went through them here. But $1 million in cap relief, solving the glut at receiver, clearing a path for N'Keal Harry, keeping Eric Tomlinson... None of those, in my opinion, really rose to the level necessitating a parting of ways with a talented athlete at a position the Patriots have been desperate to fill the last two years. I think it's fair to wonder if -- for a player who has had a hard time being dependable for a variety of reasons beyond his control -- the team determined Gordon was not meeting their standards when it comes to overall dependability. Plus, they just got deeper at receiver by adding Mohamed Sanu, and they have talent returning to the roster in Harry. If you remember, Belichick released a statement following Gordon's reinstatement by the NFL saying that he would decide to do what was best for Gordon and the team in making a call on Gordon. The Patriots didn't sound like they were tripping over themselves then to bring him back at that point, but they did because they needed him. If they like their depth now that they have some reinforcements at that position, then perhaps that helped them make the call to put Gordon on IR...

...That said, the timing of the decision is still curious. We don't know what happened after Wednesday's practice that led to Gordon's placement on IR. We don't know IF anything happened following Wednesday's practice that led to his placement on IR. It seems like something happened because the team told Eric Tomlinson he was released, told him to stick around because they wanted to bring him back soon, then brought him back a few hours later without ever making his release official. That's unusual. It was a sequence of events would suggest to us something happened. That "something" could've been as simple as Belichick changing his mind. But we don't know for sure.

Hey, BXP. If he's released off of IR following next week's trade deadline -- and there are a few reasons the Patriots would probably like to do that -- then he'll go through waivers and be able to be claimed by another team. I wouldn't anticipate Gordon returning to them this season.

Phil, my man, I asked him last week if he'd be lobbying for an offensive role now that Elandon Roberts has been on the field offensively. I was half kidding. Van Noy is obviously a good athlete with good size. The Patriots have done it before with a number of players, not just Mike Vrabel. He's pretty busy as it is right now, though, playing 85.2 percent of the snaps this year (not including Week 1, which he missed for the birth of his son). Belichick probably isn't looking to put too much more on his plate right now.

We'll probably get this question every week for the rest of the year, but I don't think you should hold your breath, Matthew. Put it that way. 

I'll go with Sanu, Tim. He plays a highly-productive position in the Patriots offense. He's a veteran who understands coverages. The Patriots gave up a second-round pick for him for a reason; they needed him, and they felt like he was worth it. I think Harry, if healthy, can provide something similar to what Gordon gave the Patriots through Week 7. But I'd go with Sanu as No. 1 on this list. While Sanu-for-Gordon shouldn't be viewed as a one-for-one on-the-field swap, putting Sanu in the slot and getting Harry back makes the overall position group deeper. That probably made the Patriots feel better about cutting ties with Gordon. I don't believe it was THE reason. If it was, the Patriots would've put Gordon on IR right off the bat when they acquired Sanu. Both players were on the practice field together on Wednesday.

He's been tremendous in a reduced role, Ryan. I wasn't sure he was going to be on the team to start the year. I believed he was a good trade candidate because he doesn't fit the mold of a classic 3-4 lineman. But in sub situations -- and consistently in run-game situations as well -- Wise has made his presence felt. I could see him getting a little more work in the second half of the year. I don't think he'll get to Lawrence Guy's snap-count numbers any time soon, but why not play him a little more while he's on this hot streak just to see how it goes?

I'm going off the board, Jacob: Jermaine Eluemunor. He's been the jumbo tight end when the Patriots have called on that role recently. Ferentz is a good guess, too. He's been with the team a while now. Veteran guy. I could see Belichick enjoying watching him get into the end zone. 

I'm still going with the Patriots, Juan. There seems to be a "dance" going on right now between the quarterback and the team, as Tom E. Curran put it on our most recent Patriots Talk Podcast. Eventually, the music will stop, Brady will have to decide if he wants to play again, and if he does he'll have to decide if he's willing to go to a lesser program for more money. He might be willing to. I don't think we should ever take Adam Schefter's reporting lightly. But that's my take on it for now: He'll be back. If they run the table and win the Super Bowl, though, I'll be firmly entrenched in the, "He's going to retire, isn't he?" camp. 

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The only way they can free up cap space with Gordon, Dave, is to hope another team picks him up on waivers. For that to happen, he'll have to be released off of IR following the Oct. 29 traded deadline. If the Patriots outright released Gordon before the deadline, they'd be on the hook for his money. 

He saw a couple more targets than the ones that landed in the box score last week, IOTD, drawing two penalties to give the Patriots key yards. Seven targets in all aren't bad. He caught all five of his official targets. I don't know if in an offense that also includes Julian Edelman and James White anyone else should ever expect anything close to double-digit targets. In all likelihood, because of Sanu's addition and Harry's impending return, Meyers will see fewer targets than he has the last few weeks. But all it takes is an injury or two to potentially land him a bigger role once again. 

I think my pick would be Dont'a Hightower. When he's sent after the quarterback, and when he's healthy, he's so explosive at the point of attack that he's hard to block. Jamie Collins is probably the most athletic rusher they have so his first step is sometimes all he needs to get to quarterbacks. Kyle Van Noy, meanwhile, has a great combination of strength, quickness and motor that gets him to quarterbacks consistently. What's interesting is that if you watch the Patriots pass rush, they rarely do so in a one-on-one fashion. That's part of the reason Bennett didn't work here. He often collided with teammates when asked to stunt or run games. All three of the linebackers I mentioned above, meanwhile, have gotten to quarterbacks based on schemed-up pressure that required them to work in concert with a defensive lineman or two. It's a synchronized endeavor, getting to quarterbacks for the Patriots.

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Bill Belichick ranks new captain Elandon Roberts among Patriots' 'most unselfish' players

Bill Belichick ranks new captain Elandon Roberts among Patriots' 'most unselfish' players

FOXBORO, Mass. -- The New England Patriots announced their team captains Thursday, and there was one name that drew a little extra attention.

Pats linebacker Elandon Roberts, who was selected by the team in the sixth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, was among the seven captains named. If you were surprised at Roberts' inclusion on the list, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick did a very good job explaining why the 25-year-old is a great candidate to be a captain. 

"His whole career from Morgan State to Houston to here, he wasn't a highly recognized player when we drafted him. But he's one of the most unselfish players we have on our team," Belichick said before Friday's practice at Gillette Stadium. 

"He'll do whatever he can to help the team in any way. He's also one of the toughest and most physical players on the team as well. He really is a tempo-setter, an impact hitter. His intelligence and his awareness, how hard he studies the game of football is very important to him, and that's reflective in how he approaches it and the way he plays. He's gained a lot of knowledge and a much greater understanding both individually for his position and much greater depth in terms of what the offense is trying to do, defensive strengths and weaknesses of individual calls and so forth. He's grown tremendously in those areas."

Roberts has tallied 65 or more total tackles in each of the last two seasons. He posted 65 total tackles, one sack and a career-high four passes defensed during the 2018 campaign. Last season also was the first in which Roberts played all 16 games.

Players vote on the captains, so Roberts' election really speaks to what his peers think of his ability and leadership, among other factors.

"Just as a teammate, I'm sure the players voted for him because of his toughness, his unselfishness, his dependability," Belichick said. "His willingness to do whatever it takes to help the team win. You can't ask for any more than that." 

Roberts joins quarterback Tom Brady, center David Andrews, running back James White, safety Devin McCourty, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and special teams ace Matthew Slater as Patriots captains for the 2019 season.

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