After another regular season, the New England Patriots find themselves once more among the last twelve teams standing. Everyone is 0-0, and losing is no longer an option. It’s the highest of stakes, and because of the physical nature of football, injuries are often the difference between wins and losses. After a season plagued with injuries, the Patriots are getting healthy at the right time.
The Wide Receivers
Entering the 2017 season, the Patriots seemed to have unparalleled offensive skill. For wide receivers, they had two bona fide stars in Julian Edelman and Brandin Cooks, along with great depth in Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Hogan, and Danny Amendola. However, this unit never saw the field together due to a swarm of injuries. Edelman tore his ACL and Mitchell injured his knee in the preseason, causing both the miss the regular season. Amendola suffered a concussion in the season opener and has been on a snap count all season. Hogan suffered a shoulder injury in Week Eight and only played one game the rest of the season.
While quarterback Tom Brady is still the frontrunner for the MVP award, it’s fair to say that the offense has struggled the last month or so. A lot of this is due to underperformance by the healthy players. Cooks ended his season on a high note, but hadn’t played well the previous four weeks. From Weeks 13-16, Cooks had averaged just two receptions for 34 yards. Not exactly the expected production from the top receiver. The depth behind Cooks has been even worse. Phillip Dorsett, who had seen a sizable amount of snaps due to injuries, managed to only haul in 12 catches for 192 yards all season. Tight end Dwayne Allen had similar issues. While he served as a great blocker, he ended his season catching just 10 catches for 86 yards and a touchdown. Newly acquired Kenny Britt only had two catches all season.
With the depth pieces being unable to step up in the face of injury, it’s no wonder the passing game struggled. Fortunately, this problem should resolve itself. Hogan has been practicing recently. Given two additional weeks to get healthy, it would be shocking for him not to suit up for the playoffs. Additionally, Mitchell has returned to practice, meaning he could also be ready to go for the playoffs. Mitchell’s potential impact has already been analyzed, but having both players back should open up the passing game to a level it hasn’t been at all season. Mitchell did miss Monday’s practice, so any impact he makes should be considered bonus.
The Running Backs
While the passing game has struggled over the last few weeks, the running game has gotten better. Dion Lewis, once buried on the depth chart, has become one of the best running backs in the league. His elusiveness, patient running, and ability to break tackles has been on display every time he touches the ball. The last few weeks, he’s done it all by himself. In the playoffs, he’ll have help.
Rex Burkhead has been a revelation when he’s been on the field. While he hasn’t been quite as good as Lewis, Burkhead has the ability to attack the defense in the running and passing game. Additionally, he’s got quite the nose for the endzone. In ten games, Burkhead has found the endzone eight times, tied with Rob Gronkowski for most on the team. Burkhead suffered a knee injury in Week 15, but was expected to be ready for the playoffs. Nothing has happened to change that timeframe, so expect a powerful running back duo for the playoffs.
Completing the trio is third down back James White, who missed the last two games after suffering a minor ankle injury. Not only is White probably the best pure pass catching back on the roster, but he knows a thing or two about big postseason performances. Suddenly, the Patriots running back depth chart transforms from just Lewis into a trio of backs that can wreak havoc every single time they touch the ball.
The defense has gone through a lot of injuries this year, but the unit always performs adequately as long as Kyle Van Noy has been on the field. Van Noy has become the leader of the defense since star linebacker Dont’a Hightower went down in Week Seven. Van Noy isn’t the best player on the defense, but he might be the most important. Linebacker is an incredibly important position in the Patriots scheme, and the drop off in talent behind Van Noy is drastic. Van Noy took over the top spot in Week Seven, and the Patriots defense flourished. The next six games, the defense only allowed 9.5 points per game, with a high of just 16.
Van Noy suffered a calf injury that kept him out of Weeks 13-16, and the defense struggled. New England allowed 27 points against Miami and 24 against Pittsburgh, and in both games the scores could have been much higher. Linebacker Elandon Roberts and David Harris saw the field more, and both showed their limitations. Roberts lacks the speed and awareness to cover running backs, and was constantly beat in the passing game. While he’s a solid tackler, too often he misses his run assignment or attacks the wrong gap. Harris was a great linebacker in his day, but it’s clear the 33-year old has lost a step.
The Patriots defense also struggled with setting the edge. While that had been a problem all season long, losing Van Noy only exacerbated it. The Patriots were completely incapable of stopping outside runs, as the defensive linemen would get pushed right past the play.
Having Van Noy back will help this problem, but it appears as though an outside fix could help the problem. Former Steeler James Harrison made his Patriot debut in Week 17, and looks like he will be a major help for this team. With him and Van Noy fully healthy and motivated, this defense could be the best it’s been all season.
The 2017 Patriots ended the season tied for the best record in football with 13-3. They have a five-time Super Bowl champion at quarterback who put up another MVP caliber season. And, they’re getting healthy at the right time. The football world should watch out, because these returning players could lead the Patriots to their sixth championship.
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