The 4-7 Los Angeles Rams are headed out to take on the 9-2 New England Patriots following one of the most drama-laden weeks for the Rams in recent history.
With so much focus on the Rams’ off-field disturbances this week, I linked up with Rich Hill of Pats Pulpit, the SB Nation community for New England Patriots fans.
(NOTE: I shot these questions over to Rich before the news of Grownkowski’s back surgery broke yesterday)
Offensively (when you guys are healthy), how can this offense be stopped?
Well, I guess the "when you guys are healthy" caveat is important because this offense hasn't been healthy all season. TE Rob Gronkowski was limited until week 5, while TE Martellus Bennett suffered an ankle injury early in week 5 that is still affecting him now. WR Julian Edelman was dealing with his foot injury early in the season and finally looks healthy now, but WR Chris Hogan suffered a back injury that same week. Oh, and Seahawks SS Kam Chancellor busted up QB Tom Brady's knee, so he's been hobbling around the past three weeks.
At least the running backs are finally all healthy (knock on wood).
When the offense is healthy, there honestly isn't a defense that can stop them. The team runs deep at talent at every single position, with two of the top 5 tight ends in the NFL, a very good receiver in the short game in Edelman and a quality deep threat in Chris Hogan, a hammer of a running back in LeGarrette Blount, an elite receiving back in James White, and one of the most elusive backs I've ever seen in Dion Lewis.
All together, they're a group that can drop 40 points on any defense in the NFL. The problem is that they're never healthy. Brady looks mortal without Gronkowski, and the added injury to Bennett really affects the Patriots playbook. When the Patriots don't have Gronkowski and Hogan is limited, then there's no deep threat and defenses can focus on pressing the receivers to prevent any separation and the offense is lucky to put up 20 points.
On the defensive side, what's the biggest strength? Which component of the defense are you most comfortable with especially as we near the postseason?
The Patriots are best at stopping the run because the Patriots have a pretty simple team identity. The offense is great and can scored points on a regular basis. If they can stop the run, then they believe they can build up an early lead and force opposing teams to become one dimensional- and then it's easier to defend against the pass with arguably lesser talent because you know a passing play is coming.
And in fairness, it's worked. The run defense is excellent, as always, ranking 4th in DVOA, behind just the Ravens, Seahawks, and Jets. No team has been able to run on the Patriots with any above-average success. Sure, some teams might average 4 or even 5 yards per carry, but they've only allowed 3 carries of more than 20 yards, which ranks 2nd in the NFL.
The passing defense is still a work in progress and that's why it's imperative for the Patriots to stop the run early.
Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia have been the coordinators since 2012. There's certainly a ton of speculation about the opportunities both are going to be offered in terms of head coaching gigs pretty soon. How would you describe both and how do you feel about the possibility of having to find a new OC or DC?
Both McDaniels and Patricia should be on top of coaching lists, but for different reasons.
McDaniels has the clear football brain where any team with a developmental quarterback should want to hire him. He has the ability to modify the entire offense to make it successful for the quarterback and he's extremely flexible. In the run at Super Bowl XLIX, McDaniels drew up a different game plan for every single round; trick plays for the Ravens; run plays for the Colts; quick passing for the Seahawks. This year, we saw McDaniels change the offense for both Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett with very good success. The question is whether he's able to lead a team, and I think his experience with the Broncos has made him grow to appreciate his opportunities.
Patricia is entirely different. I don't think he gets any credit for the defense because Bill Belichick is looming over his shoulder. The defense has finished the top 10 of points allowed every year that Patricia has been coordinator. But no one is smarter that Patricia and no one spends more time in the office. It also doesn't hurt that he has learned how to run every single defense in the book. His demeanor reminds me a bit of Mike Tomin's in the sense that the players really respect him and he brings a certain energy to the locker room.
I think Patriots fans were surprised that both stayed for the 2016 campaign, but their replacements are in house if necessary. Tight ends coach Brian Daboll is in his second stint with the team after serving as offensive coordinator for a few teams and linebackers coach Brian Flores has recently been promoted to linebackers coach. Both have been asked to serve as coordinator during the 4th preseason game, so it's pretty clear they're next in line.
What's different about the 2016 New England Patriots compared to recent years?
Despite being 9-2, the team honestly feels a little bit flat at times. The offense is lacking any real consistency with its personnel, which makes it difficult to get into a rhythm, while the defense has lacked energy all year. In years past, each Patriots team could claim a certain unifying identity, whether by overcoming injury, or by elite play, or even by an arbitrary measure of "heart." This team is still waiting for its moment.
That said, there are no real concerns with the offense. They'll figure it out. It's the defense that has Patriots fans worried because despite ranking 3rd in points allowed, it's a unit that doesn't inspire fear into anyone. Every week 1 starter has underperformed (except maybe CB Malcolm Butler and DT Alan Branch), and it's led to ED Jabaal Sheard, ED Chris Long, and CB Logan Ryan getting benched, and LB Jamie Collins getting traded. Long has since stepped back up into a leading role.
December is the point of the season when Patriots fans either feel confident or (relatively) hopeless about the team's Super Bowl prospects. This year, no one has a clue what to think.
Tom Brady is 39 years old. Bill Belichick has been the head coach of the Patriots since 2000. This has to end soon, right?
No. Brady is currently siphoning off Jimmy Garoppolo's life force, while Bill Belichick is a lich king.
Brady is honestly playing better than ever before and while his physical gifts might not be the same as they were in 2007, he's showing far greater command of the offense. Once his knee heals, and once Gronkowski, Bennett, Hogan, Edelman, and Lewis stop feeling the effects of their injuries, then the offense should make the 2007 unit take notice.
As for Belichick, he's probably got another decade in him. He wants to coach after Brady retires and that's looking further and further into the future. As a scholar of the game, Belichick also has a deep appreciation for the history of the sport and all of its associated records. He currently has 255 career wins, including playoffs. Tom Landry has 270. George Halas has 324. Don Shula has 347. Belichick is "just" 64 years old. He says he doesn't want to coach deep into his 70s, but I'm guessing his tune changes once he hits 300 wins in the next 4-5 years and sets his eyes on Halas...and then sees Shula within reach.
Thanks to Rich for the time.