Patriots Mailbag

Patriots Mailbag: Trying to decipher the Patriots offensive plan vs. Titans

Patriots Mailbag: Trying to decipher the Patriots offensive plan vs. Titans

The Friday Bag is back, friends. Every week, I'll be answering your questions be they Patriots-related, about the league at large or otherwise.  Tweet them using the #FridayBag hashtag. This week, everyone's focus was obviously on the Patriots-Titans Wild Card matchup. We'll start there with a question on the running game.

I think the Patriots will try to get Sony Michel going because they always try to get Michel going. The Titans run defense has been pretty effective this year, though. They allow just 4.0 yards per carry. Against 21 personnel -- so if the Patriots want to run Michel behind Elandon Roberts -- the Titans allow just 3.5 yards per carry.

I'd roll with both Rex Burkhead and James White on the field and chuck it. The Titans are 26th in the league in success rate allowed to backs, according to Sharp Football Stats. If the Patriots hand it off, hand it to Burkhead. Over the last three weeks, he's third in the league in yards after contact per attempt.

The benefits of the Patriots offense are that, with a smart team and an accurate quarterback, there's almost always an answer for what the defense poses. What makes it difficult is when there are several new pieces trying to pick it up on the fly. If it doesn't go well, you'll see a season like this one.

I'm not sure Tom Brady would benefit from a new start because in his mind, there's a reason it's as complex as it is. You could certainly make the argument that a modified system might help younger players. Maybe that's what we see if Brady and McDaniels end up moving on. 

Afraid so, Mark. Afraid so. There is no doubt a path to Patriots victory. It involves sacking Ryan Tannehill, who's taken 31 of those since Week 6. It involves turning the football over, which the Patriots have done more often than any team this season outside of the Steelers. It involves big plays in the kicking game, which this group is certainly capable of.

But the Patriots have lost three of four games against offenses that rank inside the top-15 in DVOA this year. (The one they won came against the Cowboys.) The Titans are in the top-10. It's just hard for the Patriots to keep up with top offenses these days.

If the Titans stop the run -- which they've done well this year -- and double Julian Edelman, where does Brady go? Maybe N'Keal Harry or Mohamed Sanu ends up having a breakout game. Maybe there are a few trick plays that go for chunk gains. Maybe they score defensively or on special teams. I don't rule it out. But I'm not banking on those things happening, either.

1) I think it helps the Patriots it it's nasty out. The Titans have the league's leading rusher, but they're also an explosive passing offense. They average 9.6 yards per attempt with Tannehill behind center. They're No. 2 in the NFL in explosive play rate. If that passing attack gets bogged down because of the weather, if it becomes a low-scoring game, that's advantage Patriots.

2) Five first-team All-Pros for Matthew Slater should be Hall of Fame worthy. Anyone with five at any position should be in, probably. Seems like a good rule.

3) Couch. 

I don't know? Same reason he dials me up and has no idea? I blame Bo. 

You're probably reading this on Saturday. Soooo nope. Nothin'.

Devin McCourty. I consider him the co-quarterback of the defense alongside Dont'a Hightower. It's a defense loaded with big brains, but those are probably the two biggest. One in the secondary. The other in the front-seven. McCourty could be back as a free agent, but losing him would complicate things on the back end.

Joe Thuney is a close second for me. Whoever is playing quarterback next year is going to need to be protected. He's been their best offensive linemen. 

Depth. Had Sony Michel missed any time, we would've seen Harris. Ivan Fears recently told us that the fact that entire group has been healthy for the majority of the season is the reason why Harris didn't play. 

I'll say 25. I'd expect the defense to play much better than it did last week, but the Titans have been good enough for long enough that I think they have the ability to get to 24 points. Tannehill may panic in his first postseason start. He may panic at the sight of Gillette Stadium, where he's never won. But I think we've all been waiting for this offense to come back to Earth and . . . it . . . just . . . hasn't.

Good tight ends are, by their nature, difficult matchups. They're often the best athletes on the field when you factor in height, weight and speed. They're big. They're athletic. They're pretty rare specimens. There are very few body types defensively who can do what they do.

The Patriots have always had bigger linebackers whose strengths don't necessarily lay in their ability to cover. Tight end duties, therefore, often fall to Patriots safeties.

Patrick Chung has been the guy for years and done a solid job. But he's been banged up this season, and even when he's tight on his matchup -- I can think of two long Dawson Knox catches when that's been the case -- he's simply not as long as some of the players he's covering, making it difficult to win in contested situations.

Jonnu Smith will be a challenge this week. We went in-depth on how the Titans use their tight ends here

Think so, Brett. See above. "Pony," for those of you wondering why Brett is talking ponies, is the Patriots package that features two pass-catching backs on the field simultaneously. It's often a two-back, no-tight end set. 

Don't know if I could put a number on it, Shawn. For weeks, I was of the mind that he would be playing somewhere else in 2020. But the more I consider the potential options -- particularly after the Dolphins committed to the Ryan Fitzpatrick and Chan Gailey combination for next year -- the more I start to think there might not be a great fit out there for him.

I think coming back is in play, if there's enough interest on both sides. I think retirement is less likely, though I wouldn't rule that out. How he plays this postseason could end up impacting things. If he lights it up, maybe there end up being more suitors than we think. 

Corner is pretty well stocked. Stephon Gilmore, JC Jackson and Jonathan Jones are all back. Joejuan Williams is a second-round pick in his second year. You can never have too many corners. But that doesn't look like a pressing need for them. Also, punter. They got a good one.

I'd be shocked . . . SHOCKED.

I will say this: The Titans defense looks like it might be susceptible to deep throws. They play a lot of single-high safety coverages -- coverages the Patriots see all the time and cut up in last year's Divisional Round game against the Chargers -- and deep routes to stress the deep safety might be a good idea. Post-dig combinations. Seam routes. Even post-wheel combinations to put deep-third corners in a bind.

All might end up being good ideas. All are longer-developing plays. Still, I don't see Matthew Slater out there as a true wideout. A mini-tight end in motion at the goal line? Maybe. We've seen that this year. But not as a receiver.

Treehouse.

Gronkowski. Not the vertical threat Moss would be, obviously, but a vertical threat nonetheless. And a game-changer for a running game that could use one. 

Yes. Hat on inside on multiple occasions. I know. I know. Degenerate. (JUG stands for "justice under God." Any good JUG-worthy infractions committed by our Jesuit-educated readers? By all means, leave 'em in the comments.)

Wings. Haven't had a carb since 2004. Whatever you're eating Saturday, enjoy.

Thanks for all the submissions this week. Whether the Patriots win or lose, we'll be back here with another Bag next week.

Patriots Mailbag: How would Patriots staff look if McDaniels landed elsewhere?

Patriots Mailbag: How would Patriots staff look if McDaniels landed elsewhere?

This week's mailbag features speculation on another coaching staff shakeup should Josh McDaniels depart, plenty of matchup questions for Saturday against the Bills and that unavoidable Tom Brady question about 2020 and beyond.

Got a question? Hit Phil Perry up on Twitter using the #FridayBag hashtag. 

On to the queries...

Great question, Adam. If Josh McDaniels were to leave, that'd mean more turnover for Bill Belichick to oversee, and it's anyone's guess as to how the team would rebound. My choice for the next offensive coordinator would be Joe Judge, who is one of the senior members of the coaching staff after McDaniels, and who has added receiver coach responsibilities to his plate this year. 

Mick Lombardi has been valuable as assistant quarterbacks coach in his first year with the team, working alongside McDaniels, and he'd likely take on a larger role. Nick Caley, who has been tight ends coach since 2017, could stick in his role or make a move to help patch up a post-McDaniels staff wherever it needs patching. 

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What makes Judge a logical candidate as offensive coordinator is that a) he's coordinated special teams since 2015 and would be comfortable having a large number of players under his purview, and b) his special teams assistant Cam Achord and receiving coach assistant Troy Brown could conceivably take on larger roles with their respective position groups, giving the team some much-needed coaching consistency. 

Belichick, I'm sure, would end up spending more time with the offense, leaving Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo more to handle on the defensive side. 

The Patriots could've re-signed him, Tom, but they opted to let him walk and sign with the Dolphins last offseason. He was worth more to Miami -- a team trying to establish a culture, looking for veteran role players to serve as an example for the rest of the locker room -- than he was to New England, which would've used him as a blocking tight end. 

At least that's what we all thought at the time. Turns out he would've been incredibly valuable in the role he held for two seasons. 

Not only would he have helped the running game as a tight end, which has struggled in large part due to the team's inability to set an edge, but he often played out of the backfield as a fullback and might've mitigated the impact of the loss of James Develin early in the season. He was waived-injured by the Dolphins and never caught on elsewhere.

We're of the same mind there, Gigi. My belief, based on conversations I've had and looking logically at how Brady's latest contract negotiation played out, is that he'll be playing elsewhere in 2020. I don't know where that will be. 

I've made the case for Miami before. But there's so much to play out between now and then that guessing his specific whereabouts is next to impossible. You always have to allow for things to change. 

For a scenario to break in such a way that it makes sense for all parties involved to take this thing around for another spin. But as of this Bag's writing, I just don't see it.

I think the Patriots could end up playing a little more zone than they typically do, Dave, just because not having Jonathan Jones throws off the matchups. 

They're a predominantly man-to-man team, but in man, who takes Cole Beasley in the slot? Jason McCourty. He's an option, if healthy. Patrick Chung has played plenty of slot in the past. I think Devin McCourty is physically capable of doing the work there and he certainly would have an understanding of the responsibilities in there. 

Now...should a veteran slot receiver who works underneath completely dictate coverage from snap-to-snap? No. But the Patriots can't let him roam free for six-yard gains at will either. 

Jones, who can play some safety, is a vitally important member to the Patriots secondary, and whether they're in man or zone, they'll have their work cut out for them as they try to compensate without him. Remember: Jones could've factored into the spying-Josh-Allen equation, too. His versatility will be missed. 

WVM, I hear you. I thought that package was going to be the next big thing in Patriots' offensive innovation. Seriously. 

They invested as much at running back as any other team before the season. They had quality depth. They had capable pass-catchers. And the Patriots went to it early. They used two backs and no tight ends on a whopping 31 percent of snaps in Week 1. 

Since then, they've used it on three percent of snaps. Why? It hasn't worked. They average 3.8 yards per pass attempt out of 20 personnel and 3.1 yards per carry. On paper, it looks great. For whatever reason, it hasn't played out that way. 

Ted, it would not surprise me in the least if Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has noticed that those inverted wishbone looks -- the ones that the Ravens, Texans and Chiefs have all used with success against the Patriots this season -- might work for his team this weekend. 

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The Bills have the combination you need: a mobile quarterback and three tight ends who can clear space as run-blockers. I'd actually be surprised if we didn't see it. 

On the flip side, I'm sure the Patriots have worked on it, and typically when they identify something to stop, they have success. That's one of the fascinating games within the game this week. 

Jacob, that plan makes some sense, but I'm not sure the Patriots can afford to limit Edelman that way. If he's out there, they're going to need him out there. 

Otherwise, they become easier to defend and what's already a difficult matchup becomes even more so. 

Best side dish? My aunt Sue makes a macaroni salad that is an absolute staple for our massive family get-togethers. That’s my No. 1. Fairly certain she has to make 20 pounds of that stuff a few times a year just to keep everyone happy. 

Happy holidays, all. Thanks as always for all your contributions to the Bag. We’ll have more over the next few weeks, but you made 2019 the best year in Bag history. Appreciate you.

 

Patriots Mailbag: Try to enjoy it while it lasts with Tom Brady

Patriots Mailbag: Try to enjoy it while it lasts with Tom Brady

The Friday Bag is back, friends. Every week, I'll be answering your questions be they Patriots-related, about the league at large or otherwise.  Tweet them using the #FridayBag hashtag. This week, the focus for many of you was -- no surprise -- how the offense can improve. We'll start there.

On the Best Buddies change, in a vacuum, I wouldn't take it as a sign Tom Brady is leaving. Julian Edelman has been in a little more prominent role with Best Buddies over the last few years, and the transition was coming. Edelman and Jayson Tatum are now going to jointly take on the role Brady occupied for years. I understand why you'd ask, though.

Everyone is looking for breadcrumbs that might indicate where Brady's path leads next. I would say, if you're someone who has lived and died with every Brady snap for the last two decades, I think it makes sense to try to enjoy it while it lasts...even if the offense doesn't look the way you're used to it looking. No one knows for sure where he'll end up in 2020, but obviously the possibility exists that in the next month-and-a-half or so, these will be the last games in which he takes the field in a Patriots uniform.

On Damien Harris, he would be playing by now if the Patriots felt like he'd give them a chance of producing more in the running game. That he's not, in my opinion, has to do with a couple of key factors.

1) The Patriots understand that running game success is a product of the situation a running back is in. That means if the play-calls aren't right, or if the offensive line is struggling (this season's issue in New England), there's only so much a running back can do on his own. One thing a running back can do on his own is make people miss at the line of scrimmage with quickness, which is why James White and Rex Burkhead have been more productive runners than Sony Michel this year. That's not really Michel's game. It's not really Harris' game either.

2) Pass protection. Even if Michel isn't on the field as a passing-game target all that often, he does typically understand where he's supposed to be as a blocker. That's part of the game that is famously difficult for rookies to pick up, and it's one that the team can't overlook. Those negative plays -- if a back were to give up a sack -- are simply too costly. If the Patriots believe that Michel's issue as a runner is that he's not attacking the line of scrimmage aggressively enough, something running backs coach Ivan Fears pointed out earlier this year, then maybe we'll see Harris. But I wouldn't hold my breath. 

He's just missed so much time that he's constantly in catch-up mode, Ernie. We've seen him break the huddle and double back to Brady for specific instructions. We've seen him hesitate at the line, as he did last weekend before going in motion on the play that led to his should've-been touchdown.

We should see him more, though. Josh McDaniels said this week that it's on him to get him the ball more often since he's clearly a physically gifted player. That kind of talent is nothing the Patriots can turn their noses up at right now. They need to exhaust all options when it comes to offensive efficiency. Screens, deep shots that punish defenses for doubling Julian Edelman, back-shoulder throws . . . they could all be part of the formula for integrating Harry into the offense further. 

Well, the approach changed in the spring when they took Harry in the first round, Anthony. They'd never done that before. And I wouldn't give up on him just yet. But in terms of the players they like, I don't think after two decades you're going to see that deviate much.

They're going to want physically talented players. They're going to want intelligent players who can work within their offensive system. They're going to want hard-working players, players who are willing to block and play special teams. There's obviously a sliding scale with all of those elements.

They may be willing to dial back their expectations when it comes to blocking if the player's IQ is through the roof. They may be willing to take a lesser vertical leap if the guy is a special-teams maven. Despite their hit rate (one that includes guys such as Deion Branch and Julian Edelman), I'm not sure you're going to see a complete and utter overhaul of how that position gets evaluated.

They need to get healthy on the offensive line. They need Ted Karras back. They need Isaiah Wynn in the lineup consistently. They need to be able to have some consistency up there. That'd give Brady more time -- allowing receivers more time to uncover -- and it'd help the run game build some momentum. In Wynn's first two games back, against the Cowboys and Texans, the team ran the ball better.

Without Karras in the lineup last weekend, that phase of their offense took another step back. They also need to incorporate a third (and fourth) trusted option in the passing game. That might be Mohamed Sanu. It might be N'Keal Harry. But they need someone.

Long story short, I don't envision them excelling in any one area down the stretch the way they did in the running game last season. But they need to improve along the offensive line and they need to find another go-to guy in the passing game outside of Edelman and James White. It's not impossible. But it's a lot to get cleaned up, and they're running out of time. 

Nope. Don't think so, David. From everyone I've spoken to, I believe it was a genuine mistake on the part of the content team at One Patriots Place. But given the nature of the incident -- and given the piece of equipment at the center of the incident -- it was bound to pick up steam around the country. And so the league now has to treat this seriously.

The commissioner now has to say at the league meetings that the NFL will conduct a "thorough" investigation. And there will likely have to be a punishment. I would assume that punishment is a fine. Docking New England a draft pick -- punishing the football operations side of the organization for what was not a football ops issue -- would be overdoing it. But we've seen the NFL overdo it before. 

I'm sure he'd love them. Haven't gotten there with him just yet. He tears up the house like Tasmanian Devil after consuming whatever amount of sugar is in a sip of apple juice so holding off on the Fluff for now. 

I think they would. I think they started to handle him a little better in the second half of their first meeting. They handled the running game a little better, anyway. That's the key. If they can avoid allowing huge chunk plays on the ground, they'll be in business.

They'll have more tape on the Ravens in Meeting No. 2, they'll have more time in practice focused on that particular scheme. It should look better. Will it be good enough to hold Baltimore to the low 20s? Because that seems to be what the offense needs these days. Of that, I'm not sure. 

I think last weekend's game was a pretty good illustration of why Brady's play isn't the primary issue. I'd start with the offensive line. They didn't give Brady a chance against the Chiefs. Then I'd move onto pass-catchers being unable to a) catch the ball and b) adjust with their quarterback on the fly. And it's not all the rookies. We've seen veterans not whip their heads around on hot routes or screw up signals. There are only two guys on the right page with Brady right now: White and Edelman.

Maybe Ben Watson, but he doesn't get enough looks to say definitively one way or the other. The guys around Brady need to help him out. He's missed throws, sure. But that they're stuck in the teens on the scoreboard is more on those around him than it is him. 

Great question. Starting to get geared up for next year's draft here. The best first-round pick is a tough one to determine. You'd be choosing between Richard Seymour (Belichick's first first-rounder with the Patriots), Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins, Devin McCourty and Dont'a Hightower.

I think for his on-the-field dominance you'd have to go with Seymour. But Wilfork provided plenty of that himself, had a longer run here, bridged the gap between two iterations of a dynasty, and helped establish the culture we've come to know in the Patriots locker room.

Mankins was a Patriots rock for nearly a decade and provided the team with a level of toughness few others could. McCourty has been the brains of the secondary through three Super Bowl teams and became one of the strongest defensive leaders of Belichick's tenure.

Hightower has three rings to his name as well and came up with huge stops in each Super Bowl, earning him the nickname "Mr. February" from Belichick. I'll go with Seymour for his play, what he contributed to three titles, and for helping get this two-decade run off the ground. Here are the rest of the best from each round:

Best first-rounder: Seymour (Honorable mention: Wilfork, Mankins, McCourty, Hightower)

Best second-rounder: Rob Gronkowski (Matt Light, Deion Branch

Best third-rounder: Joe Thuney (Duron Harmon, Logan Ryan)

Best fourth-rounder: James White (Stephen Gostkowski, Trey Flowers, Asante Samuel, Shaq Mason)

Best fifth-rounder: Dan Koppen (Matthew Slater, Marcus Cannon)

Best sixth-rounder: Tom Brady (Nate Ebner)

Best seventh-rounder: Julian Edelman (Matt Cassel)

Good questions, Roberta. According to Sharp Football Stats, Sony Michel has had 119 first-down runs this season. Of those 53 have been successful (45 percent) -- "success" meaning he's picked up at least four yards on first-and-10. He's averaging 3.7 yards on first down.

His first-down success rate is 58th among backs. Here's a pretty staggering graphic from JJ Zachariason of FanDuel, who looked at gains by running backs on all downs.

Notice Michel has the lowest rate of runs that went for one or more yards, meaning he's racked up a lot of no-gains and negative runs this season. Not what you're looking for.

That'd make sense to me, Bob. I suggested Edelman rest earlier this season when he was dealing with a rib issue -- the Patriots, you'll remember faced an unbelievably easy schedule at the time -- and was promptly laughed at by the former pro football players on our Pregame Live set.

Their contention was: "Football players play football." Which I get. But my contention would be: "The Patriots aren't going anywhere if Julian Edelman is too hurt to play in January." The only problem is that he's been SUCH an integral part of the offense that if the Patriots benched him, they might have trouble moving the football against one of the worst passing defenses in the league.

That's just where their offense is at the moment. You can't bank on a defensive or special-teams score every other week. So I think he'll suit up Sunday. Then maybe we'll see him sit down if/when the game is in hand. That could be the opportunity you're talking about for younger wideouts. 

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