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Rams-Patriots preview: 5 Qs, 5 As with Pats Pulpit

Cam Newton, Jake Bailey and does New England have any “bad” starters?

NFL: New England Patriots at Los Angeles Chargers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

These Thursday night games don’t give teams much (or enough) time to prepare. Similarly, it would be nice to have the same amount of time to cover upcoming games but here we are jamming in another preview because suddenly the LA Rams are nearly at kickoff for Week 14. Three days after beating the Arizona Cardinals and former number one pick Kyler Murray, the New England Patriots and former number one pick Cam Newton await former number one pick Jared Goff.

To get to know these new New England Patriots, I sent five Qs to Bernd Buchmasser of Pats Pulpit and in kind he sent me five corresponding As. Bernd and I also had our podcast preview of the game just yesterday and you can listen to that here:

Now onto the Qs and As.

Q - We talked off air about punter Jake Bailey but failed to mention New England’s special teams during our podcast chat other than to say they drafted a practice squad kicker in the fifth round. That doesn’t really tell us the story of special teams, where they could have two Pro Bowlers again, including Bailey. How would you describe Bailey’s impact for the Patriots this season, especially given their lack of offensive firepower? What about the other phases — field goals/PATs, kickoff coverage and returns — how is New England doing in those aspects?

A - Bailey has been really good for the Patriots this year, showing some impressive development from his 2019 rookie season to the 2020 campaign. Obviously you never want to see your punter on the field for anything other than extra points or game-winning field goals, but as the old saying goes: beggars can’t be choosers. When it comes to New England, after all, Bailey has been instrumental in helping the team flip field position while its new-look offense had its fair share of struggles.

Of course, a punter alone cannot get the job done. Luckily, as you mentioned, the team also has some strong coverage personnel led by veteran Matthew Slater — the son of Rams legend Jackie — and Justin Bethel. While the unit did show some inconsistencies earlier during the year it has really looked good as of late, both when it comes to making quick tackles on returns and working together with Bailey to pin teams deep on a regular basis.

Also coming along is the return game. New England decided to make a small change ahead of Week 12, moving Gunner Olszewski away from kickoff returns to have him focus solely on punts. He has flourished since then: he ran back five punts the last two week, finding the end zone once (he would have found it a second time if not for a penalty) and averaging 42.4 yards per return. The kickoff job, meanwhile, went to Donte Moncrief who has not been that spectacular in his limited opportunities but still averaged 37.5 yards per runback on his two tries.

Then, there’s the rush on punts and kickoffs — something the Chargers found out last week when Cody Davis was able to get his hands on the football, setting up a Devin McCourty return touchdown. All in all, I would therefore say that the Patriots’ special teams as a whole has developed nicely and is growing into a strength for the team.

Q - If there’s any team that the Rams would want to emulate in how they perform against the Patriots, it would be the 49ers, who won 33-6 and forced four turnovers. What did San Francisco do right, or what did New England do wrong, that day?

A - Listing all the Patriots did wrong would take a ton of time, so I’ll just go straight to the two main issues. On offense, Cam Newton was unable to take care of the football while throwing three interceptions. Anytime you do that, it’s really hard to play winning or even competitive football. On defense, meanwhile, the 49ers were able to just destroy New England on the ground by setting a wide perimeter and exposing the lack of depth and athleticism in the front seven (rookie linebacker Anfernee Jennings probably still has nightmares about that game) — San Francisco had a really nice offensive game plan to use their outside zone scheme to spread the Patriots’ front out.

The Patriots’ issues extended beyond those, however, as they also had problems finishing tackles and saw even more turnover along their offensive line — all while still hurting from their coronavirus outbreak a few weeks before. Add it all up, and you get a recipe for disaster.

What does that mean for the Rams, though? I think trying to go after New England’s off-the-ball linebacker group would still be the best course of action to attack the team — just like the 49ers did: Ja’Whaun Bentley, Terez Hall had the aforementioned Jennings have had their moments, but they are at least one level below the players they are trying to replace (i.e. Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins and, to a lesser degree, Kyle Van Noy). While the unit as a whole has played some sound football the last two weeks, the linebacker position still is a mixed bag.

Q - Cam Newton has five touchdowns passes this season, but 11 rushing touchdowns. This is a rushing offense, through and through. If the Patriots have first-and-goal at the 10, how confident are you that they’ll score a touchdown rather than kick a field goal or turn it over on downs? Is the rushing attack good enough to succeed in that situation?

A - Well in that rather specific situation you are describing, the Patriots have been pretty good: they ran 71 plays inside the opponent’s 10-yard line, and 40 of them have been deemed successful for a rate of 56 percent — the seventh best in the NFL. So, they have not been as bad as one would suggest in this part of the field. What does stand out, though, is the willingness to run: 53 of the Patriots’ plays were runs compared to only 18 passes. So far, the running game has worked in situations similar to the once you have described with 34 of those running plays turning into a success. The problem as I see it is the 27th ranked passing attack.

So, to answer your question: in a vacuum and based on the statistics I would say I am fairly confident that they should be able to score more touchdowns than field goals. On the offensive (in)aptitude meter with the 2007 Patriots worth 10 points and the 2020 Jets 1, I would give the unit a solid 6.

Q - It seems like even if New England lacks talent, Bill Belichick consistently manages to avoid putting bad players on the field ... or at least, not putting players in positions they can’t handle. But are there any starters or regulars on this team that are simply “bad”? Or is it typically 11 players on either side of the ball who Belichick can at least mostly trust to not screw up?

A - I think it’s more of the latter, but obviously not every player on the field has the same level of consistency. Take Stephon Gilmore, for example: he’s playing on a high level week-in and week-out — you probably know what you’re going to get out of him. The aforementioned Ja’Whaun Bentley or Anfernee Jennings, on the other hand, are more up and down due to their youth and relative inexperience. That does not necessarily qualify them as “bad,” in my opinion, but it does make them less dependable than a player like Gilmore.

When it comes to pointing at players who would fall under that definition, I would go with the two linebackers — Jennings even more so than Bentley, even though Bentley is seeing much a lot more playing time. There’s also defensive tackle Byron Cowart, who can be a stout run defender but also works best as a situation player as opposed to a regular. Adrian Phillips also needs to be pointed out, not because he is a bad player but rather because hiss lack of size at the “star” safety spot makes him a target in the run game.

On offense all of that might be an even bigger issue. The wide receivers — primarily Jakobi Meyers, Damiere Byrd and N’Keal Harry — have all been rather inconsistent, with the tight end position led by third-year man Ryan Izzo being virtually nonexistent when it comes to pass catching contributions. That also makes life tougher for Cam Newton, whose own lack of experience in the system is on display from time-to-time as well.

That’s a pretty loaded answer, I understand, but it’s really difficult to just point at a player and say “Bad!” without proper contextualization.

Q - The Rams picked up Derek Rivers from the Patriots this season. Why did Belichick decide to give up that journey with Rivers at this stage of his career and is there hope left in him as a prospect?

A - First things first: I always liked Rivers and he was a blast talking to. Would I have liked to see him succeed not just for the Patriots’ sake but his own? Absolutely. But, things don’t always go according to plan. In Rivers’ case, there were two main factors working against him in my opinion:

1.) His extensive injury history – he missed two of his three full seasons due to torn ACLs — and subsequent inability to reach his potential in almost four full years in the NFL. His outlook beyond his rookie contract was therefore very much in doubt.

2.) His spot on the depth chart. The Patriots’ outside linebacker position is led by Chase Winovich and John Simon, with second-round rookie Josh Uche recently emerging as the number three alongside them. The youngster is coming into his own, and I feel as if that made Rivers expendable to a certain degree especially considering that he only had limited special teams value and a pretty clearly defined role as a sub pass rusher.

Is there still hope for him? I think so, because a change of scenery and different role can do wonders for a player. His history is not overly encouraging, but I still think he has some potential value as a situational pass rusher from the edge. You probably shouldn’t expect much more, however (even though I’d be more than happy to eat my own words there).