For some of us, the summer is used as valuable time to get sunburned and forget about everything winter-related. I did that this summer and basically didn’t pay attention to the NFL for a couple of months (which was a blessing, considering how stupid the NFL’s summers can be). The curse of this strategy is that you aren’t fully up to speed with the other other teams.
With the season starting, it’s time to start getting to know folks and teams again. I reached out to Rich Hill of the excellent Patriots site Pats Pulpit for a quick Q&A about how the Patriots’ offseason went, how their offensive line looks, and how they shape up against the Texans this Sunday.
BRB: Julien Edelman’s absence for the first four games of the season would usually be a bad thing for most teams, but the Patriots seem to have a way of finding gems and getting the most out of the position without the flashiest of names. With Edelman gone, who do do you see stepping up to help fill that void?
RH: Chris Hogan is the most likely player to play a larger role with Edelman out of the picture. Hogan has been one of Tom Brady’s most reliable targets over the past two seasons and he’s a pretty unique player with regards to his skill set. He’s a fantastic deep ball threat, leading the league in yards per reception during the 2016 season, so he was already projected to take over some of the production from Brandin Cooks. With Edelman gone, Hogan can provide value by stepping up in the slot, especially with the unproven Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson the other two likely receivers to see playing time. Hogan isn’t as good of a deep threat as Cooks or as good of a slot receiver as Edelman, but he’s good enough in both roles and he’s a better red zone target than either of them, so he’ll definitely produce.
Another option is running back Rex Burkhead, who will almost assuredly receive snaps out of the slot at some point during Edelman’s suspension. His versatility as a runner and receiver should create some favorable mismatches against linebackers that Brady will definitely try to exploit.
BRB: The Patriots lost starting left tackle Nate Solder to free agency this offseason, and then lost potential replacement rookie Isaiah Wynn to injury. How is the offensive line looking heading into the first game of the regular season?
RH: The Patriots acquired Trent Brown from the San Francisco 49ers and he’s been penciled in as Solder’s replacement all offseason, even with the selection of Wynn in the first round. Brown is a massive mountain at left tackle and he was always a great pass blocker with the 49ers. His weakness was his run blocking, which Patriots’ offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is always able to fix. Brown did a pretty good job in the preseason at left tackle and, while he’ll have his hands full against the Texans, there hopefully won’t be too much of a drop off on the line as a whole.
In fact, the line should be better this year with 2016 All Pro right tackle Marcus Cannon back in the lineup. Left guard Joe Thuney is entering his third season in the league and he’s gotten better every single game. Center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason are both extended beyond their rookie contracts and are considered among the top five at their respective positions in the entire league. So if Thuney can build upon his strong second season and if Brown can come close to replicating the sometimes inconsistent Nate Solder at left tackle, the Patriots’ line will be the best its been in a long time.
BRB: The Patriots lost defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to the Lions this offseason and replaced him with Matt Flores (though not officially). What exactly is going on with the Patriots’ DC position? What will the Patriots’ defense look like schematically out of the gate?
RH: Flores is the Patriots de facto defensive coordinator and he has the trust of the entire defense. He’s expected to call for more defensive pressure compared to Patricia, who enjoyed to drop back into coverage, but the defense should be more or less the same as in previous years.
New England sets out to accomplish three goals on defense every week: 1) force opposing teams to lead extended drives of 10+ plays by taking away big passing plays; 2) stop the run; and 3) take away the opposing team’s top option so they have to lead those long passing drives with lesser players. The odds are stacked against opposing offenses if they have to complete multiple passes every set of downs—although this is why Andy Reid-style offenses have some success against the Patriots because they are super comfortable taking the easy pass every single play.
Also, the Patriots aren’t strangers to this scenario. Bill Belichick will take the heat for any shortcomings by the defense this year, just like he did for Matt Patricia in 2011. Fortunately for the Texans, the Patriots’ defensive growth blueprint usually comes in three waves: 1) the Patriots’ defense is pretty vanilla for the first four or five weeks as players continue to learn the playbook and their responsibilities and find their strengths; 2) the Patriots switch to a defense that highlights these players’ strengths and continue to make tweaks to compensate for whatever issues arise; and 3) the Patriots close out the final few games of the year with a high-performing defense as they head to the postseason. Houston could have some success on Sunday against the vanilla Patriots defense.
BRB: Looking at the Texans from the other side, what is one aspect of the game you think they have an advantage over the Patriots? What’s one area that you think the Patriots will have an edge over the Texans on Sunday?
RH: Houston definitely has a dominant defense and even as I just sang the praises of the Patriots’ offensive line, I think the Texans’ defensive front has an obvious edge over the Patriots. While New England has been successful at neutralizing J.J. Watt over the years, the continued growth of Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, and D.J. Reader, plus the development of Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham, means that someone is going to get a favorable match-up against the Patriots’ offensive front and generate pressure against Tom Brady or the Texans will be able to drop an extra body or two into coverage and force Brady to hold on to the football for an uncomfortable amount of time with a new cast of receivers. I expect this game to go similarly to the Patriots’ game against the Los Angeles Chargers in 2017, when Brady was hit a billion times by Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram.
On the flip side, the Patriots have impressive continuity and experience on defense, with only four real changes: the addition of Adrian Clayborn and Danny Shelton, along with the return of Dont’a Hightower and replacement of Malcolm Butler by Eric Rowe. Stephon Gilmore, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Kyle Van Noy, Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy, and Trey Flowers are all back in their starting roles, while the team has much better depth at pass rusher this year. If the Patriots can limit DeAndre Hopkins (no small feat) and contain Deshaun Watson in the pocket, the Patriots should be able to fluster the Houston offense.
BRB: What’s a better piece of American fiction: “The TB12 Method” or “The Sound and The Fury”?
RH: If Tom Brady hasn’t eaten a strawberry in his life, Roger Goodell should suspend him four more games for not being huma—wait, Roger! I was just kidding! Put down the phone!
I want to thank Rich for being such a good sport. If you or your loved ones suddenly feel compelled to start following the New England Patriots, I would heartily recommend you float on over to Pats Pulpit to enjoy their excellent coverage and analysis.