After a 17-10 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, the 9-1 New England Patriots demonstrated encouraging improvements as well as concerning, but fixable, flaws. After an embarrassing defensive performance against the Baltimore Ravens, New England’s defense rebounded strong. While defense kept the Patriots in Sunday’s game, their offense continued to struggle for much of the evening.
New England Patriots Record Might Be Deceiving
Defensive Line Improvements
The loss to Baltimore was highlighted by New England’s defensive inability to stop a strong rushing attack. The Patriots’ defensive line got blown off the ball and had no presence at the line of scrimmage. However, coming off their bye week, the Eagles game featured a completely different narrative. New England’s defense vastly improved their control at the line of scrimmage, allowing just 81 rushing yards and totaling five sacks. The defensive line’s improvement was spotlighted by 6’2″, 345-pound defensive tackle Danny Shelton. The former first round pick flourished against Philadelphia, tallying seven solo tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble. Shelton is a keystone within New England’s defense, as he ranks sixth in combined tackles and assists among NFL defensive tackles. In order for this defense to continue their success, the league’s sixth-ranked defensive tackle must perform up to his potential. As was seen during the Baltimore loss, when Shelton and his fellow defensive linemen do not play to their potential, opponents are able to control the game with their rushing attack.
Flashes of Offensive Potential
New England’s offensive struggles have been well-documented this season and many of those same struggles appeared yet again on Sunday. The biggest offensive concern for this team should undoubtedly be related to their offensive line and specifically, left tackle. Since starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn was placed on injured reserve, 31-year-old Marshall Newhouse has been tasked with protecting Tom Brady’s blindside. During his nine games played this season, Newhouse has been an absolute liability in pass protection which has stunted this team’s offensive development. Newhouse’s footwork is sloppily slow, his awareness for block assignments has been atrocious, and his play has steadily gotten worse as the games pile up. However, the issues at left tackle will hopefully be fixed during the next two weeks. Multiple team reporters have acknowledged New England’s intent on activating Wynn off injured reserve at some point this coming week. Whether or not Wynn plays week 12 against the Dallas Cowboys still remains to be seen, but he should easily be ready for the Patriots week 13 matchup with the Houston Texans.
The Patriots have lacked the ability to connect on vertical chunk plays for a plethora of reasons. First and foremost, the team’s offensive line simply has not been good enough to pass protect for the amount of time needed for vertical routes to open up. Additionally, New England has been without a talented, vertical threat receiving target for nearly their entire season. However, that has begun to change with the activation of first round rookie wideout, N’Keal Harry, as well as tight end Ben Watson getting increased snaps. Harry is the biggest and most athletic receiver on the Patriots roster, but he is also extremely raw.
The 32nd overall pick flashed his potential this past Sunday as he made his NFL debut. Despite tallying just three receptions for 18 yards, Harry showed us glimpses of his undeniably electrifying talent. His first reception came on a key third down in which he used his 6-4 frame to box out a defender and make a sure handed 11-yard slant catch. Furthermore, Harry caught a wide receiver screen that showed off his talent for gaining yards after the catch. Entering the draft, many analysts spoke of the Arizona State University product’s ability to run the ball like a running back after the catch. It is very apparent that Harry has an above-average vision and natural feel for finding space when the football is in his hands. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels needs to find creative ways that feature Harry’s offensive spark.
Through more snaps, Watson has also emerged as a pleasantly surprising reliable vertical threat for New England. Against the Eagles, Watson totaled three receptions for 52 yards with an average of 17.3 yards per reception. This Patriots passing attack does not need a vertical offense of 50 yards bombs, but rather a vertical offense of 20-yard seam receptions. The tough and sure-handed Watson has proven he can fill the role of catching such passes and New England needs to continue featuring the Brady to Watson connection.
New England played with mental toughness last Sunday, as they competed in their closest game since their Week 4 Buffalo Bills matchup. With Wynn’s return on the horizon, Harry’s offensive integration, and the defense proving they are still the league’s best, the road to Super Bowl LIV still goes through Foxborough.