How can the Patriots return to January football and possible postseason glory?

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Photo: Creative Commons

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick

By Aidan Crooke

The first two weeks of the New England Patriots’ football season have come and gone, and if you were expecting a pair of convincing wins, you’re probably not too happy. 

The Patriots had a rough opener in Hard Rock Stadium, Sept. 11, against the Miami Dolphins, and the 20-7 loss certainly raises questions about the team as a whole. You could easily tell these Patriots aren’t the same ones who made a resurgence with rookie Mac Jones, but are instead a team looking to rebound from their dismantling in the playoffs at the hands of Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills. 

There is no beating around the bush here. If the Patriots want to go back to postseason football, games like these cannot happen. Their defense must be consistent—they can’t just nearly intercept Tyreek Hill on one play and give him an easy release on the next, or let Jaylen Waddle split three safeties for a 42-yard touchdown reception. 

Ja’Whaun Bentley and Kyle Dugger both lead the defense in tackles with 13 combined, with Bentley, Matthew Judon, and Deatrich Wise all managing to bring Dolphins’ quarterback Tua Tagovailoa down at least once during the game for a total of 28 sack yards. 

The Patriots seemed to crack their scoring slump against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday,  Sept. 18, scoring 17 points over three quarters but not scoring in the fourth. There are signs of improvement for the Patriots’ offense overall, and it may be that their offense is taking some time to warm up, which is certainly an improvement from their week one performance in Miami.

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Last week, the Patriots’ defense forced three sacks, an interception courtesy of Jalen Mills plus Myles Bryant and Ja’Whaun Bentley both totaling 24 tackles during the game. New England led 17-6 entering the final frame, but a Steelers touchdown and two-point conversion made the game closer than it should have been.

The Patriots’ defense held Pittsburgh to two field goals leading into the fourth quarter and forced the Steelers to punt four times. This defense has potential, but it has to stop possessions quickly, which the Patriots are clearly able to improve on as they showed in Pittsburgh. 

While they were on defense in Pittsburgh, the Patriots forced 3-and-outs from the Steelers consistently with the exception of a 16-play series that led to the first of the Steelers’ two field goals, and a 9-play series that resulted in a 13-yard interception from Davis Mills.  

The Patriots’ offense also needs to take one step forward if the Mac Jones era is going to be in full swing. When the Patriots finally managed to get on the board over 10 minutes into the third quarter of the Miami game, their playcalling left more questions than answers. New England was better about scoring sooner into the game against the Steelers, getting a field goal and a touchdown in the first and second quarters respectively.

Now, we obviously can see what’s happening on the field, but what’s happening off the field? There has been plenty of conversation on what’s going on in the locker room as well.

The Patriots’ lack of an offensive coordinator made it unclear whether Joe Judge or Matt Patricia was calling plays. If Patriots head coach Bill Belichick wants to succeed, he needs to name a coordinator sooner rather than later. On the other hand, this ambiguity can throw off opposing defenses and give Jones and his receiving corps more wiggle room for how they run plays.

Against Miami, Jones had a solid day out, throwing for 200 yards and a touchdown. However, a Dolphins Pick-6 hurt the Patriots’ chances of making the game remotely competitive. The Patriots’ offensive line only allowed one sack against Jones in Miami, and improved to keep Jones from being taken down at all in Pittsburgh.

Ball security is another concern for the Patriots’ offense, as shown by Nelson Agholor’s  excellent catch-turned-fumble due to a blindside hit. 

The Sept. 11 matchup was concerning, but that doesn’t define the Patriots’ season entirely. They have matchups with the AFC and NFC North divisions, as well as one-off games against the Las Vegas Raiders and Indianapolis Colts. 

The Patriots’ defense will be tested against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Raiders, and the Dolphins once again, and defensive cohesion is necessary when preparing to deal with elite receivers like Davante Adams, Ja’Marr Chase, and Tyreek Hill. If the Patriots receiving corps can make crucial receptions without coughing up the ball, seven points will be on the board much sooner in the game than this experience. 

The Patriots will face Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium on Sunday,  1 p.m. Both the defensive line and the secondary will need to be on their A-game as Ravens Jackson is a known threat to move the ball downfield, either through the air or on the ground, so be prepared for an offensive shootout. Mac Jones is only in his second season but has shown flashes of brilliance for the new era of Patriots football.