After a 2-4 start, the Patriots have risen from the depths of the AFC to legitimate Super Bowl challenger.
The defense has been dominant and allows the fewest points per. fight in the NFL. The offense has established a bully identity, and the specialty teams have evolved into a top-10 unit.
So where are the possible problem areas when the Pats make a push for the playoffs?
The receiver space can be one. If Mac Jones is forced to pull out a game or two and throw the football, then does he have adequate weapons?
Defensively, the Patriots are pretty thin at cornerback after interception magnet JC Jackson. Will teams eventually reveal this lack of depth?
With six games to play, what’s highest on the concern meter? The authors of The Herald’s Patriots debate:
In our case: While Bill Belichick has successfully intended to use Jalen Mills out of position as a frontier corner against Jackson, it’s hard to believe that Mills will not become a liability at some point. And while Myles Bryant has done an appropriate job of taking on Jones, he was revealed a bit in Thursday night’s game against Atlanta. The Falcons struck at him, especially in man coverage. He handed over several finishes for first downs. Pats have used a lot of zone coverage, but if the pass rush does not penetrate as it has, then beware.
Callahan: And that’s why I don’t care about the secondary. Strong passing defense is a combination of smart coverage and an effective rush. The Patriots have pushed quarterbacks close to 40% over their winning streak, behind Matt Judon, Kyle Van Noy, Christian Barmore and others. Through zone, Pats play secondary at the elite level. But there is no hiding on their bottom 10 receiving corps, which will face Buffalo’s top-ranked defense twice and Tennessee’s No. 2 passing defense of Pro Football Focus grades on Sunday. The Patriots need to spend more than they have received outside to win big games.
In our case: They may be bottom-10, but they have been effective enough when asked. Throw in Hunter Henry, which is a red zone machine, and they’ve done fine. Plus, I think they’re just starting to scratch the surface with Kendrick Bourne. He has evolved into a playmaker who runs and catches the football. Jakobi Meyers is certainly reliable. Admittedly, Nelson Agholor has not done much, but he really has not been necessary with their bullying ball offense. In terms of upcoming opponents, Josh Allen and the Bills’ receiving corps will test the secondary just like the Cowboys did. And it was not pretty.
Callahan: But will “just fine” be good enough in the playoffs or matches with playoff implications in the future? Or against elite defense? Or in third place with the game on the line? Meyers, no matter how reliable he is, has one touchdown. Agholor only scored last week against Atlanta due to a broken coverage. Bourne has an average of three and a half catches per game. Which of those group keeps opposing defensive coordinators up at night, especially when catching passes from a rookie quarterback? At least for Mills, he has Bill Belichick coaching him, Devin McCourty in the back and JC Jackson on the opposite side.
In our case: Did you hear Bourne on Wednesday? He talked about the recipients now being safe and comfortable and that the group is “a really good place.” They may not have the stats or attract attention, but in addition to the running game, they score lots. And even though the defense is performing at a high level, that Dallas game still stands out. Dak Prescott burned the secondary for the most yards ever against Bill Belichick. Why? He had the weapons. The Bills do the same, and if they reach the playoffs, so do other teams, namely the Chiefs.
Callahan: It’s great that they’re confident. But I do not know how confident fans must be when facing playoff defense on the way forward, especially Buffalo and All-Pro corner Tre’Davious White. As for the Dallas fight, do you know what happened after that? Zones pivot. The Patriots have played zone at 72% of their defensive snaps since then, rising to the league’s No. 2 ranking by DVOA. That is the plan going forward. Offensively, the Pats are in 16th place, despite a top-10 racing game. What happens when it dries out? Probably problems.
In our case: Or not. First, Mac Jones continues to rise. He is still learning, and far from a finished product. But he may be able to reach a point this season where he is able to make the players around him better, a bit like No. 12 did when he was here. He is not there yet, but it is not crazy to think that he will get there before the year is over and the recipients will also improve because he has lifted their game. In terms of defense, yes, it has helped to switch to a zone. Bill Belichick has been able to hide his weakness. Have you ever seen Tom Brady separate a zone? The Patriots will face other quarterbacks who will do the same. Opposing teams will eventually find out.
Callahan: It’s too many “mays” and “buts” for my liking. Especially with a rookie quarterback. I think the best way to define this conversation is if you could add an elite player to any position to elevate the rest of the Patriots list, which position would you choose? Without a doubt, it is wide receiver. The Pats can already boast a top-pass defense, and a true No. 1 wideout can make them AFC favorites. A corner would be a luxury at this point given JC Jackson’s appearance and the talent available in safety with Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips. This means that the receiver is the weak point and there is no if, and and but know it.
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