The New England Patriots have been in your living room and in your face for the last two decades. Is there anything new we can learn about the Pats as the New York Giants get set to face them on Thursday night? We turn to Bernd Buchmasser of SB Nation’s Pats Pulpit to find out in this week’s ‘5 questions’ segment.
Ed: 6.8 points per game? Seriously? Is the Patriots defense really THAT good? How?
Bernd: First things first: the Patriots defense is in fact only surrendering 4.0 points per game — the other points given up are thanks to a pick-six by the team’s backup quarterback, and a muffed punt by an undrafted rookie return man that was returned for a score.
As for New England’s defense, it is pretty good. Yes, it played the mighty Luke Falk, Josh Allen and Colt McCoy as well as the two-headed Dolphin JoshRyan FitzAllen over the last four weeks but it did what you would expect a top-notch unit to do: it thoroughly dominated its opposition, no matter who lined up on the other side. Just look beyond the points given up and you will see a defense that ranks first in the NFL in yards, turnovers, first downs, passing yards, passing touchdowns, sacks, average time and plays and yards and points per drive … you get the idea.
So how come the unit is this good? The opposition can’t be ignored, of course, but it goes much deeper than that. I would argue that there are three main reasons why the Patriots are playing such dominant defensive football right now:
1.) The players’ experience: From players such as Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy to Devin McCourty and Stephon Gilmore, New England fields numerous defenders that have considerable experience in the system. No matter what happens, they can be counted on to be on top of the situation.
2.) The players’ versatility: This is especially true at linebacker, where New England has players that can line up all over the front seven. Having versatility also allows the team to keep similar personnel groups on the field, no matter the opponent.
3.) The scheme: Led by Bill Belichick, who has taken over play-calling duties from offseason departure Brian Flores, the Patriots run an aggressive yet flexible scheme that plays to the strength of its personnel. Putting players in positions they are comfortable in is a key here.
Add it all up, and you get a pretty darn good defense.
Ed: How weird will Patriots fans find it to play against the Giants with Eli Manning watching from the sidelines?
Bernd: Knowing what has happened over the past 15 years, I think you could replace “weird” with “relieved” to a certain degree. Manning has [thinks of a proper phrase not to offend Giants fans] seen better days, yes, but he always seemed to pull a rabbit out of his helmet against the Patriots. Having him line up on the other side of the ball — even against this defense — would have created at least some unpleasant feelings or at the very least some forgettable memories for Patriots fans.
In all honesty, though, I think it probably will not be all that weird. Manning has clearly slipped over the last few years, and seeing him replaced is the natural result.
Ed: Matt LaCosse is a former Giant and a guy who didn’t stick only because he couldn’t stay healthy. How has he done for the Patriots?
Bernd: Spoiler alert: he missed most of preseason because he couldn’t stay healthy.
Generally speaking, LaCosse has been okay. Nobody expected him to come in and replace Rob Gronkowski (no single player could do that), but he has had his fair share of ups and downs. He saw limited action during the first four weeks of the season as he still recovered from a sprained ankle suffered during the preseason opener, and had to essentially play second fiddle to second-year tight end Ryan Izzo. On Sunday against Washington, however, he led all Patriots skill position players with 73 snaps and looked solid albeit a bit inconsistent as both a blocker and a pass catcher.
While he has not really stood out for better or for worse, I think that the Patriots’ coaching staff likes what he brings to the table as a complementary piece in the offense. The clearest sign of that is that the team did not activate veteran Benjamin Watson after his four-game suspension and instead released him. While the salary cap played a role in this, I believe that the Patriots would have kept Watson around had they felt badly about the tight end group and LaCosse as its nominal top option.
Ed: If you could take one player off the Giants’ roster NOT NAMED SAQUON BARKLEY and put him in the Patriots’ lineup who would it be? Why?
Bernd: Lawrence Taylor! Oh, you mean this year’s roster. Well … let me think.
At this point, I would probably go with Nate Solder for a simple reason: the Patriots’ starting left tackle — Isaiah Wynn — is on injured reserve with a toe injury and while he will eventually return, his replacement has been inconsistent to say it nicely. Marshall Newhouse has had some solid moments as a run blocker last week, but surrendered two sacks. The week before that, he surrendered no sacks but struggled in run blocking. You get the idea.
Bringing the ex-Patriot Solder back in would give the team an experienced option to protect Tom Brady’s blindside before Wynn returns and an established depth piece either as a third option or a potential starter depending on the status of Wynn and right tackle Marcus Cannon.
Ed: Is Tom Brady human? A Terminator? Is the guy showing ANY signs of being, you know, 42 years old?
Bernd: To answer your questions one-by-one:
2.) Can’t rule it out.
3.) Not really.
Brady has played some good football through the first five weeks of the season, especially considering that his supporting cast has had its fair share of problems: from injuries along the offensive line to Antonio Brown coming and going to the running game struggling over the first four weeks of the season. Despite those issues, he has done a good job of leading one of the NFL’s best scoring offenses.
He has not quite been perfect, however, and has, for example, thrown ugly red zone interceptions in back-to-back weeks. While some of this has to do with the pressure he faced behind a makeshift line, he also needs to be smarter in those situations. But all in all, Brady at 42 does not necessarily look any different than Brady at 41 or at 40 or at 39 or…