Optimistic Patriots honks have reason for some positivity this bye week as New England passes the midseason point with a 5-4 record.
Sitting just a half-game out of the postseason picture with just less than half a season left to be played, New England fields a Matt Judon-led defense that’s near the top of the league in the critical area of points allowed. For the last two-plus months the group hung with the high-powered Dolphins, dominated the overrated Lions, bettered the Browns and beat down the overmatched Colts.
The half-full glass of the defense halfway through the season is certainly something New England knows it can build on down the stretch, when teams’ reputations are built and postseason potential is either solidified or snuffed out.
“I think we’re just gelling,” Judon told WEEI this week of his New England defense. “Communication is happening more seamlessly and easier. We’re able to play complementary football where the DBs are working with the pass rush. The pass rush is working with the linebackers. And we’re talking and we’re communicating fast and we get to play fast. Now, we’ve had so many games under our belts. Now we just have to continue to communicate and talk and play like that.”
Judon leads the NFL with 11.5 sacks, three more than any other player. He’s playing significantly better than he did a year ago at this time, a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. The kind of guy that defenses are built around leading the kind of defense that teams can ride to victory.
And unlike a year ago, with newfound focus on taking care of his body with an eye on consistency over a 17-game schedule, Judon has no plans on slowing down. He’s on pace for more than 20 sacks and doesn’t shy away from that as a possibility.
“If that’s what my team needs…If that’s what I need to do, that’s what I’m going to have to do,” Judon said clearly understanding his standing on the defense and team as a whole.
But unfortunately Judon and the defense are far from the full New England story midway through the long season.
Pessimistic Patriots pontificators, well they have every reason to doubt Bill Belichick’s team as Thanksgiving draws near because all the offseason misgivings about the New England coaching staff, offensive line and potential for Mac Jones’ regression have come to fall fruition before our eyes like pumpkins in the patch or apples in orchard.
The reality is that Jones and the overall offense have been mediocre at best and borderline putrid at times through nine games, even with the Bailey Zappe era mixed in for good measure.
New England’s new-look offense under new leadership is 26th in terms of yards, 29th in the red zone and is tied for the most giveaways with 17, essentially averaging two per game.
It’s not good. It’s not nearly good enough. And everyone involved knows it.
“We got a lot of strides we need to make, I’m not going to lie,” tight end Hunter Henry told WEEI this week. “We have to get better. We have to be more consistent. We have to be better on early downs. As an offense, we have to be more accountable and be better, especially down the stretch. The bye comes at a good time. We really have to look ourselves in the mirror as an offense, especially, and we need to be better.
“We’re just continuing to progress, man. It’s been a strange season probably for us just with everything going on. I mean new coaches, quarterback situation with injuries, guys kinda coming in and out. But we’ve got a bye here, a time really to look ourselves in the mirror and really grow and see what we’re going to do down the stretch. I mean this is where we have to play our best football. We gotta come to play down the stretch.”
Exacerbating New England’s need to be better on offense and to continue to play at high level on defense down the stretch is the fact that the schedule gets significantly more challenging. The second-half slate not only includes Josh Allen’s Bills twice, but a still-improving Dolphins squad, the potential-filled Bengals and talented-if-underachieving disappointments like the Raiders and Cardinals. Even the Jets want to prove they’re no pushover a couple weeks after Zach Wilson gifted New England the game with his turnovers.
November and December won’t include matchups with QBs like rookie Kenny Pickett or overmatched fill-in Sam Ehlinger.
Nope. You could argue that six of the eight QBs over the next two months have been MVP-caliber passers at some point in their NFL careers.
That’s a huge challenge for the Judon-led defense to keep up its top-10 status in points allowed and No. 2 overall ranking in takeaways.
It’s also significant hurdle for Jones and the laborious offense to score points when needed, not when it comes easy.
It’s the bye week. It’s midseason. The Patriots are in the playoff hunt thanks in large part to a defense (and some Nick Folk-led special teams) that’s put them in that position for the games to matter moving forward. There is reason for optimism in New England.
It’s also a bye week opportunity for the offense to get its you-know-what together and begin to carry its fair share of the load. It’s going to need to do that if the playoffs are to remain a consideration into and through late December.
Is the Patriots’ glass half full at this point? Yes!
Is the Patriots’ glass half empty at this point? Yes!
But, hey, at least they know it.
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