The New England Patriots are enjoying their Week 10 bye week sitting where many teams around the NFL would like to be.
At 8-1, the Patriots are atop the AFC, leading fellow division leaders Baltimore (6-2), Houston (6-3) and Kansas City (6-3) while Buffalo (6-2) and Indianapolis (5-3) lead the wild card race in the current playoff picture.
Let’s take stock of the Patriots thus far, looking at a few of the biggest reasons why New England has excelled this season along with a few areas of needed improvement.
Where they’ve excelled
All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore and the Patriots’ secondary have compiled the second-best passing defense in the NFL while Gilmore has not allowed a passing touchdown this season, notching a team-high eight passes defensed. The Patriots have allowed just 150 yards passing per game all while helping forced 27 turnovers, including 19 interceptions. Safety Devin McCourty had cooled down a bit after a hot start, but still leads the team with five interceptions while Gilmore (three), safety Duron Harmon (two), cornerback J.C. Jackson (two), Jason McCourty (one) and Terrance Brooks (one) have all chipped in. And while cornerback Jon Jones does not have an interception through the first nine games, his ability has played a noteworthy role thus far. In addition to the statistics, the veteran defensive backfield has allowed the defense to do much more with pre-snap disguises that confuse opposing quarterbacks.
“They disguised the different looks we were in, and they controlled some of the things we did out there and made a lot of good decisions,” Coach Bill Belichick said of the group following the win over the New York Jets. “That’s a smart group of players that communicates well and can do things to take advantage of offensive formations and alignments and so forth, and they did an excellent job of that.”
Is he the current front-runner for NFL MVP? No, but quarterback Tom Brady has played well through the first nine games this year. Brady leads the league in both completions (230) and attempts (355) and has tallied 2,536 yards while completing nearly 65 percent of his passes. Brady has 14 touchdowns in nine games. And all of this comes despite the team’s red zone troubles, offensive line and tight end limitations, struggles in the ground game along with the depth chart at receiver changing consistently.
A major reason for Brady’s success, despite what’s been a carousel at wide receiver with both the comings and goings of Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon, along with the pair of undrafted rookie receivers having to step in early this year, has been Julian Edelman. Brady has relied heavily on his most trusted target throughout the first nine games. And even though Edelman seems to be playing through a chest/rib injury, he’s delivered. Edelman has caught 63 receptions (third in the NFL) for 663 yards and four touchdowns. He’s on pace for career highs in both receptions and yards. Edelman leads the NFL in red zone targets (18) heading into Week 10, while his 90 targets this year are second among wide receivers behind only Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins.
The addition of Jamie Collins has brought the Patriots’ linebacker corps to the next level, Baltimore aside (doesn’t change prior eight games). And while both Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower have played well this season, Collins should be in the discussion for Defensive Player of the Year (along with Gilmore). Collins’ has three interceptions, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, 5.5 sacks, four quarterback hits and eight pressures in the first nine games. And don’t look past Van Noy (five sacks, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and one touchdown) and Hightower (two sacks).
It’s no secret that Bill Belichick values the special teams units. It’s why he is content with Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner playing almost strictly in the third phase of the game and the addition of Pro Bowler Justin Bethel hinted further at that. It’s paid off, too. According to Pro Football Focus, the Patriots have the second-best special teams grade in the league, excluding punters and kickers. Additionally, according to Football Outsiders, the team’s punt coverage unit (featuring Slater, Bethel and Ebner) has the best Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) through the first nine weeks. Of course, the fact New England has two punt blocks for touchdowns (Slater, Chase Winovich) doesn’t hurt either.
What needs to improve Michel-led run gameThe Patriots’ offense has not came close to its potential because the run game, and specifically second-year running back Sony Michel, has been subpar. Michel, a 2018 first-round pick, is averaging just 3.3 yards per attempt this season. He averaged 4.5 yards per rush last year. The Patriots are 23rd in the league in rushing offense (92.9 yards per game) while Michel averages 53 yards per game with six rushing touchdowns.
Offensive line play
A fair share of Michel’s struggles have been due to the struggles due to injuries on the offensive line, but that’s not an excuse offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia will let creep in. The group will need to be better. And that’s not just left to left tackle Marshall Newhouse as both Marcus Cannon and Shaq Mason will need to be better as well. In addition to the rushing struggles, Brady has been sacked 15 times in the first nine games this season. He is on pace to be sacked 27 times this year, the eighth-most in his 20-year career.
Stopping the run
It’s been the lone cause for concern on the defensive side of the football. The Patriots have allowed at least 135 rushing yards in four of their last six games, which is the seventh-worst in the league over the span. Baltimore tallied a season-high 210 rushing yards in Week Nine. It’s something that will need to change in a hurry with the Eagles (127.3 yards per game), Cowboys (149.3 per game) and Texans (142.8 per game) as the Patriots’ next three opponents.