Belichick trades away a star player, ignites doubters who can’t fathom how he’ll replace said star, and the Patriots don’t miss a beat. Sound familiar?
When Belichick parted ways with former Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore, the Pats defense was supposed to take a step back.
Although Gilmore still hadn’t played for New England this season, his return was a looming upgrade that would provide a major spark defensively. Instead, after a lengthy contract dispute, Belichick traded the 31-year-old corner to the Carolina Panthers for a 2023 sixth-round pick.
Putting the compensation conversation aside, the fact that the Pats’ pass defense hasn’t skipped a beat since the Gilmore trade is a testament to Belichick.
Playing this entire season without Gilmore, New England is second in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) and third in expected points added (EPA) per drop-back. Since the Gilmore trade became official in Week 5, the Pats have held steady as the third-best team in EPA per pass play this season.
As we’ve written about numerous times, the Patriots’ coaching staff adjusted to their current personnel by featuring more zone coverage, and the adjustment coincides with their seven-game winning streak.
Since Week 7, the Patriots are playing zone coverage on 66.4 percent of their coverage snaps and have 150 total drop-backs in zone (fourth-most in NFL).
Although it’s been zone-heavy, New England’s defense is also playing well in man coverage, aided partially by fewer reps in man, giving opposing QBs fewer opportunities to attack matchups.
Even without Gilmore, the Pats are tied for second in expected points per target in man coverage with a TD-INT ratio of one touchdown to four interceptions in their last seven games.
In last week’s win over the Bills, they were in man coverage on 18 snaps and held Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen to the following stat-line against man coverage: 4-of-14, 56 yards, TD, five PBUs, 67.6 passer rating, -0.54 EPA per attempt. Yeah, that’s pretty good.
The system endures regardless of the departures or injuries (Jon Jones). Belichick takes heady veterans like Jalen Mills, plucks UDFA gems such as Myles Bryant, puts them in positions to succeed, and gets excellent results.
Last week, Belichick elevated safety Sean Davis from the practice squad to serve as a third safety with Kyle Dugger on the COVID list, and Davis played well in his role.
Credit also goes to stud corner J.C. Jackson, who is now New England’s top cornerback on the depth chart after Gilmore’s departure. Among 85 qualified corners, Jackson’s passer rating into his man coverage is tied for fifth-best (47.5), and he leads all corners with four interceptions.
On Monday night, Jackson shadowed Bills All-Pro receiver Stefon Diggs, allowing only one catch for 26 yards on three targets with a pass breakup in man coverage vs. Diggs. And that one catch was a perfect play by Diggs and Allen on a back-shoulder throw.
Although the Patriots’ coverage defenders also benefit from a pass rush tied for ninth in pressure rate (26.9%) and fourth in sacks (32), the Gilmore trade is following a similar path to other high-profile departures.
Lawrey Milloy, Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Asante Samuel, Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, and other name-brand defenders were similarly shown the door by Belichick and the train kept rolling in Foxboro.
Even without Tom Brady under center to increase the margin for error, the beat goes on for Belichick and the Patriots.
Without further ado, let’s empty the mailbag for Week 14:
What is the Injuries status of dugger, Harris and Philips ?
— Dario (@dariodelosantos) December 9, 2021
If he has no lingering effects from COVID-19, Dugger will be cleared to play the Colts game even if he wasn’t vaccinated. Unvaccinated players can return to the club after a ten-day quarantine if they’re asymptomatic, which means Dugger should be eligible to return to the facility as early as this weekend. As for Phillips and Harris, early signs point to both players avoiding significant injuries. We won’t officially hear their short-term statuses until the Pats return to practice next week, but the fact that we haven’t heard any news about major injuries likely confirms that they won’t miss serious time.
What do you make of the Patriots' very high rating in DVOA, especially weighted? Is it real, or a 2019-like mirage?
— MiltiadesTheYounger (@MiltiadesThe) December 9, 2021
A legitimate question that ultimately we’ll need to wait and see. The Patriots are a good team, and there’s no disputing that. However, the test we are still waiting on is when an elite offense makes them win a game in the 30s (they lost their only opportunity vs. Dallas). Can they win a shootout? That’s the common trope right now among the Pats’ doubters, but my question is this: will they need to win a shootout? There’s a successful defensive blueprint against all the offenses in the AFC. Are they playing KC or Buffalo? Force them to run the ball and beat you with short passes (teams are successfully doing that against them this season). Can Baltimore score over 30 with their passing game issues? Tennessee doesn’t want to play that style of game either, the Chargers and Bengals aren’t doing that with young QBs versus Belichick, and we’ll see if Indy is as big of a mismatch as they appear on paper (if they even make the playoffs). Sure, the NFC favorites can score in bunches. Still, then you’re talking about the Super Bowl, and you’ll take your chances at that point. Anything can happen. But I do not see a team in the AFC that makes me say, “oh, they’ll need to score in the 30s to beat them.”
Do you see McDaniels taking a HC job, if one pops up, or does he stay and develop Mac?
— red_team124 (@RedTeam124) December 9, 2021
McDaniels’ future is a topic I want to expand on further eventually because it’s a huge, huge deal. The Pas’ OC has Mac Jones in a fantastic place in his development, and the rest of the league is taking notice. I recently spoke to a league source about McDaniels, who said his handling of Mac would eventually earn him another shot as a head coach. Who wouldn’t want McDaniels to do what he has done with Mac for their young franchise QB? It’ll be fascinating to see what McDaniels decides to do. He has said numerous times that he wants to be a head coach again, which is becoming a very real possibility.
They pats have i believe 4 games left – colts, bills, jags, and fins
Who worries you the most at ruining the chance of winning out for the 1st seed
— Spooky ? (@SpookyyySZN) December 9, 2021
Although they’ve been inconsistent at home this season, the answer is the Colts. Indianapolis head coach Frank Reich is running the same offensive scheme that beat Belichick’s defense in Super Bowl 52 when Reich was the offensive coordinator of the Eagles. They feature a potent and diverse rushing attack, creative RPO and play-action schemes, put single-high safeties in conflict for vertical shots, underneath YAC plays, and a dangerous pass-catching RB (Nyheim Hines). They’re also very good at attacking based on personnel. If you are in nickel (5 DBs), Wentz will hand it off to Taylor. If you’re in base, they’ll check into a pass and spread out the defense. In other words, the types of offenses that give the Patriots’ system problems. It’ll be interesting to see how this Pats defense game plans and executes against Reich this time around. If they shut Indy down, that’ll say a lot. Also, don’t sleep on that Week 18 game in Miami. The Dolphins are heating up, it’s in the house of horrors that is Hard Rock Stadium, and Flores knows the Patriots well. Those are always challenging games. Ranking their remaining games in order of toughness: Indy, Buffalo, Miami, Jacksonville.
Which Part of Pats season has impressed u most?
Like about the turn around after 2-4?
Who takes AP's role, if out since it looked bad?
— Pats6 (@Pats62) December 9, 2021
I led with the Patriots’ success in coverage post-Gilmore trade for a reason. Given the perceived lack of depth and talent leaving the defense, it’s truly remarkable how well they’ve covered in the secondary. They’ve had to adjust to more early-down zone coverage but are still manning up on third down, and playing zone isn’t the indictment on defenses that people think. It’ll be interesting to see how they hold up against Buffalo sans the windstorm and in the postseason if they play an explosive receiving corps like Kansas City. But they’re mixing man and zone so well while staying connected in the backend to limit big plays. The defense has exceeded all my expectations to this point.
Should the pats turn Harry into a full time blocking TE? It’s essential all he does now, and he’s decent at it. Maybe see if they can add 15-20 pound to his frame in the off season
— Dave (@ChefdDds89) December 9, 2021
Harry gaining weight to embrace a power receiver role is how we got into this mess in the first place. He was playing at close to 230 pounds in his first two seasons and lost all his burst and agility, so he dropped down to 210 pounds this season. He’s at a great weight now where he’s still a highly-effective blocker from multiple alignments but can actually run downfield as a receiver. I wouldn’t change a thing about Harry unless you want cement feet again. This is the best Harry’s looked in the NFL.
Do you think Jakob Johnson is the most improved player on the Patriots? His has tremendous vision and sense for a fullback. He does a lot of little things really well that lead to successful plays.
— Jeff Scanlon (@jscancoach) December 9, 2021
Johnson was a good lead blocker for the Patriots last year. However, he has improved with his post-snap processing and is now more aware of a “first color” approach. Although he has an assignment on every play, sometimes the defenses’ movement changes the equation. It’s his job to take the biggest threat in his path to the running back, even if it isn’t technically his man. Is he the most improved player? Ja’Whaun Bentley and Kyle Dugger have strong cases as well. I’d give the nod to Bentley, but Johnson is solid.
Does Cam Mcgrone play this year?
— •w1nn1éTHÊbish• (@TheMattCook13) December 9, 2021
The Patriots have to activate McGrone by Tuesday, December 14th, or he’ll be out for the rest of the season (they had a 21-day window). Speaking to a source, McGrone is healthy enough to contribute this season, but it’ll come down to two things: 1. Is there a spot on the active roster where he’ll be the most useful player to take up that roster spot and 2. Is he familiar enough with the playbook on both defense and special teams to contribute after only practicing for three weeks? I don’t think this will come down to the health of McGrone’s knee.
Do you see any reasonable financial avenue to retain both or either of Adrian Phillips and JC Jackson? Both are in line to command a pretty significant sum of money based on their play this year.
— Ryan Harriman (@rsharriman31) December 9, 2021
I wouldn’t worry too much about the salary cap as it pertains to re-signing free agents. The Patriots can create cap space and have a quarterback on a rookie deal. If they want to keep players, the salary cap won’t prohibit them from doing so. It will come down to if Belichick views the price tags as good value. Does he want to pay J.C. Jackson $18 million per year? Do other teams get in on Phillips, Bentley, Karras, or Trent Brown’s markets? Do Devin McCourty or Dont’a Hightower retire? Those things will decide their feature with the team more than the cap.
What specific areas would you like to see Mac improve in over the rest of the season?
— John K (@JohnK02733480) December 9, 2021
We wrote about where Mac needs to improve to help the Patriots offense score in the red zone this week, which you can read here. To summarize, the one consistent flaw in Jones’ game is against the blitz. During the season isn’t the time to work on things mechanically, so I’d like to see him improve against the blitz down the stretch. I hope that Mac gets with Tom House or another mechanics guru to help him maximize velocity in the offseason. There are ways to get more zip on the ball through lower-body tinkering, core training, and release explosiveness. Will he go from average arm strength to Josh Allen’s level? No. But it’s definitely possible to improve arm strength. I’m sure that’ll be the focus for Mac.