Editor's note: Sorry for the delay but with some Red Sox duties, things were pushed back a little. But I think this is worth the wait. — GB
With a two-game winning streak -- thanks to two largely impressive victories after a 1-2 start -- all seems right in Patriots World. Right?
Certainly, there has been a lot to like in New England's recent play, especially with Julian Edelman back on the field to give Tom Brady the security blanket he's been lacking. And the defense has cut way back on the uncharacteristic mistakes like missed tackles and blown assignments to settle down on that side of the ball.
But in reviewing the Patriots' performance in their 38-24 victory over the Colts, the feeling coming out of the contest is New England hasn't come close to playing its best football. We'll get into the areas that have been the biggest issues — from Tom Brady seeing the field to Sony Michel leaving plays on the field and the trickle-down effect when the Patriots use Patrick Chung as a Swiss Army Knife. But all it depends on how you look at it.
On one hand, you could be disappointed. It's now Week 6 and the Patriots are still dealing with these issues. They're normally past them by this point, and rolling. That could certainly happen this week, which would be very timely with the 5-0 Chiefs coming to town.
On the other side, you could be encouraged New England has much room for growth at this stage in the season. If they get clicking in all the problem areas, then they'll be very tough to handle.
But the essential question is easy: Are the issues are fixable? If they are, then the sky's the limit. If they're not — at least this season — it will lead to an early ouster from the playoffs. Based on the Patriots' sterling track record, they'll get fixed ... or at least, they'll become manageable. But some are easier than others. Let's go through them:
TOM BRADY'S FIELD VISION
My many years spent studying Brady have largely been a pleasure. I'm spoiled. I get to watch the best in the business operate, and you can always count on him to make the right decisions and find the open man. Honestly, in a given year, you could probably quibble with one or two decisions he makes in a game, and those usually have to do with him feeling pressure. So you give him a pass.
But to this point in the season, I've never seen Brady miss or ignore so many open receivers. Take this three-play sequence against the Colts as a prime example:
This was a three-and-out midway through the second quarter. On first down, Brady missed a completely wide-open Rob Gronkowski in the middle of the field. On second down, when Josh Gordon failed to sit in the zone (he had multiple issues with route running in this game), Brady had James White uncovered in the left slot. Brady normally sees that, and takes it immediately. On third down, Brady misses an open Edelman, passes up a good option in Michel (probably because Michel has already repeatedly messed up this route) and Gordon again doesn't run the proper route.
The biggest surprise? Brady doesn't really face any pressure on any of these plays. If you give Brady all day to throw and you play pretty simple zone coverage, he'll normally kill you. That doesn't come close to happening here, and there are other examples of it in the game. This is highly unusual, and I'm not sure what to make of it.
Is it fixable?
Sure. Brady's long track record tells you it will happen, and the longer Edelman is in the mix, the more Gordon gets acclimated to the system -- and the more roles within the passing game become defined for players like Chris Hogan (the missing man) and Phillip Dorsett -- the more efficient the passing game will become.
But I have to tell you, this is the kind of stuff you see in Week 2 and against good defenses. Not Week 4 against an undermanned and predominantly zone team. I'm going to chalk most of it up to Edelman's absence, but don't be surprised if this lingers for a few more weeks — which would be abnormal. There are still many more moving parts than normal this time of year.
SONY MICHEL LEAVING YARDS ON THE FIELD
It's absolutely true Sony Michel has improved, at least in certain areas, each week. He's making the kind of progress you'd like to see in a rookie back, and the hope is the game will slow down for him at some point.
But you could also make the case this was his poorest game to date, and represented a step back in terms of his progress as a runner. I had him for eight minus runs in this game, which is more than he had combined in his first three games (five). Too often, he's not seeing the hole develop, or he's not following James Develin for long enough. The first third down of the game was a perfect example -- Michel picks up the first down, but the play should have hit big. You could have said that for another handful of runs in this game.
Is this fixable?
Long-term? Yes. This season? Maybe. The hope is between more carries and the tutelage of Ivan Fears — I think everyone knows the high regard I hold him in, and his running backs through the years have basically been devoid of mental errors — he will make better split-second decisions and get the gobs of yards he's leaving on the field.
But there's a chance, with all the practice time he missed, that won't happen this season. Usually it takes a rookie running back into his second or third year, depending on volume of carries, to have the game and blocking slow down for them. It feels like the Patriots are trying to cram for the final exam with Michel. I'm not going to doubt those coaches. They obviously think this is going to work, so we'll have to see if it does. I wouldn't be surprised, however, if the Patriots add a back with a little more experience and who falls forward a bit more. They could really use a Benjarvus Green-Ellis in this backfield right now. Michel is too boom — and most of his big runs are because of the line and also play design (wham plays) — and bust right now. The Patriots just want a consistent run game. They're hoping Michel gets there, and he might, but they won't wait forever for it to happen.
THE PATRICK CHUNG EFFECT
Everyone knows the Patriots' linebackers, especially once rookie Ja'Whaun Bentley got hurt, have had a difficult time covering anyone man to man. Dont'a Hightower is still painful to watch at times, and he had another rough go against the Colts. Elandon Roberts is serviceable, but sometimes the Patriots need more.
Enter Chung, who has made a name for himself in his second stint as a do-everything defender. The Patriots have always used him as a movable chess piece, but the Colts game was a big departure from the norm. Last Thursday, Chung was either used to take away the running back as an outlet for Andrew Luck, or as the middle linebacker on passing downs, especially in the second half.
There were some issues with Chung knowing exactly where he was supposed to be as a deep-dropping linebacker in zone coverage. But the bigger problem was the void left in the wake of Chung's departure as the in-the-box safety.
Normally, Chung shuts down the best tight end on the other team. But because the Patriots needed him at linebacker — because they don't have any good young ones — that meant Devin McCourty had to take Chung's assignments against the tight ends. And he was, in a word, roasted. Nine catches in 10 targets and 2.5 touchdowns.
This was similar to the Super Bowl against the Eagles. Because Malcolm Butler wasn't on the field, Chung was moved to slot corner and left McCourty on Zach Ertz. The result was the game-winning touchdown.
Is it fixable?
Doubtful. I assume the Patriots are looking for more coverage help at the linebacker position, but I don't think their cap situation will allow for that (more on that later this week). This is manageable most weeks, because not many teams have scary receivers at running back and tight end. The Patriots can pick their poison when it comes to Chung's assignments. But against teams with multiple weapons, like the Jaguars, Lions, Eagles, Colts and Chiefs, it becomes an issue.
I would not rule out them trying a player like J.C. Jackson as a matchup against tight ends, and perhaps Duke Dawson returns from injury and gives them another option. If you see that, you know the Patriots are trying to piece it together (like they normally do) and no one's riding on a white horse to save the day.
Here are the positional ratings against the Colts:
Quarterback (3.5 out of 5)
On the deep pass to White with 8:49 left in second quarter, Brady missed a wide-open Gronkowski in the middle of the field. It doesn’t get any more open than that. … Brady’s third-down throw to Gordon a few plays later was bad, but Gordon was also to blame because he didn’t sit in the zone. … Best throw of the first half — only, the really challenging one — was the 16-yard out to Dorsett before halftime. ... Brady was much better in the second half and was let down by two drops for interceptions. Patriots should have had at least 50 points.
Running backs (3 out of 5)
First third down of the game, Michel left a lot of yards on the field by not following FB James Develin when the Patriots had a huge numbers advantage. … Michel really struggles in short yardage. In the first goal-line snap, he needs to leave his feet and score. The second one, he didn’t follow the fullback. ... Michel, in general, leaves a lot of yards on the field, which is not unusual for a rookie running back. ... James White was great as usual. ... Develin was OK. Would have been better had Michel followed him more.
Receivers (2 out of 5)
Three drops, two for interceptions and another on third down. ... False start from Gronkowski. ... Three poor routes from Gordon, who obviously had the touchdown. Didn’t sit in a zone on one. Didn’t continue up the field on another, was late getting out of his break on man-to-man for a back-shoulder throw. Still don't think he's fully healthy. Has a lot of issues beating man coverage, which is unusual for him.
Offensive line (4 out of 5)
[table id=159 /]
In general, you don't get much better than allowing 15.5 percent pressure. Brady had all day to throw. ... The run blocking was good and the numbers would have been better with a more experienced running back. ... In order of effectiveness: Shaq Mason (clean sheet), Marcus Cannon (his trip penalty was bogus), David Andrews, Joe Thuney, Trent Brown.
Defensive line (5 out of 5)
[table id=160 /]
Outstanding job by this group. Not a ton of pressure, but enough to be effective. ... Adrian Clayborn had his coming-out party as a Patriot and caused an interception. ... Kyle Van Noy (he's now an end until further notice) was terrific again. Trey Flowers was back to his old self, although he needs to be better with his jams on tight ends. ... Quiet game from Lawrence Guy, but a step forward for Danny Shelton, which was a welcome development. ... Tremendous recognition by Adam Butler on a screen. Veteran play that should endear himself to the coaches, but they obviously already love him, for good reason.
Linebackers (2 out of 5)
Solid from everyone except Hightower, who was quietly a liability again. It seems like he's going to be more effective against teams that like to run and are more traditional in their scheme. Should be interesting to see what they do with him against the Chiefs. ... Nicholas Grigsby, who could be a solution to some coverage issues due to his speed, was burned for a 21-yard catch on one of his few plays.
Secondary (2 out of 5)
Very much a mixed bag. Even the players who played well (Stephon Gilmore, Jonathan Jones, Patrick Chung) gave up their share of plays in the second half. ... The players that had the toughest time (Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty) also made big plays. They need some consistent play out of the back end to take the next step.
Adrian Clayborn: Welcome to the party, Adrian. Hopefully this game (eight impactful plays) is a sign of things to come, because Flowers needs a running mate.
Shaq Mason: Totally clean sheet, and most of Michel's best plays came because the big man was getting to the second level.
Kyle Van Noy: We talked it about it last week (before anyone else, of course), but it keeps happening — Van Noy is the playmaker on this defense now. He's always around the ball in the box.
Devin McCourty: His teammates could have helped him out a little bit more with some jams, but he keeps getting caught flat-footed in coverage. And now it feels like teams are picking on him, going back to the Super Bowl. No surprise that Frank Reich went after McCourty again after being on the Eagles' staff.
Dont'a Hightower: After a good week, he's back in the bottom. Made a few plays, but had many more issues in this game. Zone coverage covered some of it up.
Trent Brown: Struggling and reaching with smaller, quicker players. He needs to start improving each week. To this point, he's been a little disappointing.