After the high of an upset win over the Bills in Week 5, the Patriots crashed back to Earth last Sunday against the high-powered Dolphins. Miami had a sound plan and executed exceptionally well, but New England squandered any chance of a victory with mental mistakes and missed opportunities. To make matters worse, Kendrick Bourne was lost for the season with a torn ACL, DeVante Parker will be out at least one game with a head injury, and Trent Brown’s status could be in jeopardy due to what appears to be significant knee and ankle injuries.
On the bright side, Demario Douglas’ stock is at an all-time high, and Sidy Sow looks like the answer at right guard, with Mike Onwenu helping solidify the right tackle spot. The defensive front is also playing some of its best football, thanks to breakout seasons from Christian Barmore, Jahlani Tavai, and Anfernee Jennings. This could come in handy against a Commanders team that’s allowed a lot of sacks.
They’ll need all hands on deck to get back on track against the Commanders, who pose the closest thing to a trap game a 2-6 team could face. Washington is just one game ahead of New England at 3-5. They’re giving out scores and chunk plays like Halloween candy, just traded both of its starting edge rushers, and Sam Howell has been admirable but far from perfect as the team’s top passer.
But Washington has lost its past three games by just one possession, and Jonathan Allen is still holding things down next to Daron Payne inside. Washington has also been more competitive in coverage than expected at first glance, and Howell’s tied for the 4th-most touchdown passes in the 4th quarter (4).
Bill O’Brien called this a “big week” for the Patriots’ wide receiver room, and a surprise breakout from at least one unproven player could help New England to find its groove this weekend. The defense should also be in revenge mode after getting picked apart by a juggernaut Dolphins offense.
Here are my three key matchups for the Patriots to secure their third win with the Commanders marching into town.
Patriots Pass Defense vs Commanders Pass Catchers
The Patriots entered last week with the 8th-lowest explosive pass rate allowed (15+ yards, 11.9%) since losing Christian Gonzalez in Week 4. They dropped all the way to 18th after allowing eight explosive gains against the Dolphins. There were several plays where you had to tip your cap to Tua Tagovailoa, Dolphins’ receivers, and offensive guru Mike McDaniel. Still, New England also gave up 2 long touchdowns because of busted coverages.
The secondary will look to exploit an inexperienced quarterback in Sam Howell, but former Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy and Washington’s talented receiving corp can’t be slept on. While speaking to reporters yesterday, Bill Belichick mentioned multiple times that Howell does a good job of spreading the wealth in the passing game. That unpredictability can make even a middling offense tough to defend, especially with explosive talents like top receiver Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel, and Jahan Dotson.
But Howell is also tied for the 4th-most turnover-worthy plays committed this season, including three in his past two games. The Patriots’ defense has forced a turnover in each of their past three games, so this week could be a prime bounce-back opportunity if they cut down on the recent mental mistakes.
Patriots Interior Offensive Line vs Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen
The Patriots’ offensive line seemed to find its top unit against the Bills but opted for a rotation at guard in Miami, with Atonio Mafi swapping in with Cole Strange and Sidy Sow. Strange acknowledged the difficulty of finding a rhythm with different combinations, and while the overall product has been better with Sow inside, several offensive players have acknowledged issues in both the run and pass game when facing movement from opposing defensive lines.
Strange and Andrews both allowed penetration on blitzes and stunts last week, and they’ve had issues 1-on-1 against more powerful tackles. This is somewhat understandable given Andrews’ age and Strange missing all summer and multiple games with a knee injury, but their lives won’t be getting any easier this week.
The Commanders were the talk of the town on trade deadline day after trading former 1st-round picks Chase Young and Montez Sweat for draft compensation. 2020 7th-rounders Casey Toohill and James Williams-Smith will look to replace them on the edge, but Washington’s interior still boasts former Alabama studs, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne. Allen is tied for 1st among interior defensive linemen in stops (20) and ranks 5th in total pressures (28), including the 3rd-most hits (8). Payne hasn’t been far behind in production, ranking top-10 among at the position in quarterback hits (6, t-8th) and tying for 11th in stops (14).
Even with the Commanders short on the edges, I wouldn’t anticipate this being a strong day for the rushing attack. New England’s line is built to go downhill and has struggled on outside zone concepts, so it would be a significant shift to see them attack the perimeter. Instead, the Patriots will likely rely on quick passes as extensions of the run game and RPOs to create schematic advantages.
But when the offense inevitably has to drop back and throw downfield, the Patriots’ interior, which will hopefully stick to Strange and Sow at each guard spot, must communicate well and play complementary football to hold off Allen and Payne.
Patriots Passing Offense vs Commanders Secondary
The Commanders are an interesting defense, as they rank 4th-worst in EPA/play (explosiveness, 0.136) but 8th-best in positive EPA per play rate allowed (consistency, 43.7%).
The stats say they’re hemorrhaging, allowing an NFL-high 18 receiving touchdowns and 32 catches of 20+ yards. Rookie corner Emmanuel Forbes has been the chief aggressor in a leaky group, with his aggressive style resulting in the league’s highest explosive reception rate allowed (8.8%, min. 10 targets). But Washington is also providing tight coverage and getting their hands on passes. Despite picking off just 5 passes, they’ve dropped the 3rd-most (6) and would be tied for the league lead with 11 if those were caught. Their defense also ranks 4th in open target rate (51.4%) and 6th in forced incompletion rate (11.8%).
The Patriots haven’t thrown a deep pass in two weeks, and they rank 3rd-lowest in EPA/pass play (explosiveness) this season. On paper and frankly on tape, there’s no reason to fear their vertical passing game. This is especially true with their recent injuries at wide receiver. But the Patriots have played several talented, well-coached defenses that excel at preventing big plays. Demario Douglas is also becoming a focal point in the offense, recording team-highs with 27 receiving snaps and six targets. The Dolphins also showed the rookie extra attention on a pair of plays, one of which resulted in Kendrick Bourne’s long catch-and-run for a touchdown.
If Washington follows a similar formula to the Dolphins, who also play a heavy dose of soft zone coverage and focus on eliminating Douglas, it could create opportunities for speedsters like Jalen Reagor and Tyquan Thornton. There will inevitably be hiccups, but Mac Jones can’t compound them by turning the ball over or failing to take advantage of defensive lapses.
The Patriots may have been overmatched against the Dolphins, but they also left several big-play opportunities on the field. Jones’ receivers can help him by winning their routes and finishing at the catch-point, but it all starts with #10. He should also avoid targeting veteran Kendall Fuller, one of the few steady pieces in Jack Del Rio’s defense, and focus on attacking Forbes or the Commanders’ linebackers. Benjamin St-Juste has also been solid, but he’s also drawn flags for being too aggressive, which could lead to a repeat of the Bills’ matchup when their corners combined for three penalties against Pop Douglas.
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