On Sunday, the Green Bay Packers face the New England Patriots for the first time since 2014. Bernd Buchmasser of Pats Pulpit was kind enough to answer some of our questions about the Patriots and provide insight into their strengths and weaknesses.
APC: The Packers and Patriots rarely see each other, only playing each other four times this century. What has changed about New England since the two teams last faced off in 2014?
While the Patriots’ coaching staff has remained mostly intact since 2013 – the biggest change being the departure of defensive coordinator Matt Patricia (2014’s safeties coach Brian Flores has de-facto taken over) – the roster itself has seen some major changes over the last four years: only 14 of the 53 men on the roster the last time the two teams met are still with New England. Of those 14 men, only six were starters back then: Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman on offense, Dont’a Hightower, Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung on defense.
Other than the roster, New England stayed mostly the same. The offense is still one of the most potent in the league and using multiple formations and personnel groups to move the football, while the defense is still running a man-coverage heavy scheme that is built on the “bend-don’t-break” principles of surrendering yards in the open field but making life hard in the red zone. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
PS: One of the rather interesting changes since the two teams’ last meeting is the long snapper position. In 2014, regular long snapper Danny Aiken was out with an injury, forcing linebacker Rob Ninkovich into snapping duties. New England’s 2018 long snapper, Joe Cardona, will play on Sunday.
APC: Heading into Week 9, Tom Brady ranks outside the top third of starting quarterbacks in passer rating and has nearly matched his entire interception total from last season. Do these figures simply reflect the quality of his supporting cast (Julian Edelman’s suspension, Josh Gordon’s late arrival via trade, etc.) or have you seen a dip in Brady’s play?
To get it out of the way: Brady has still not fallen off the metaphorical cliff. That being said, his numbers this year are not as spectacular as they have been in years past. So what gives? Two things contributed to this:
1. Brady has made some questionable decisions this season and at times has tried to force a play into happening – with the results not always working out in his and his team’s favor.
2. The supporting cast has changed quite a bit since week one: Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon have basically replaced Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan as the top-two wideouts, while Sony Michel emerged as a serious threat at the running back position.
The latter contributed to Brady’s numbers improving, albeit slightly, since week four. And as his supporting cast continues to grow, so should the quarterback’s effectiveness – and possibly also his decision making as he should get better at trying to force passes to certain targets.
APC: In one of the stranger stories of the offseason, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels accepted a head-coaching position with the Colts before changing his mind and returning to New England. Given the ramifications of such a decision, why do you believe McDaniels jilted Indianapolis to remain Bill Belichick’s subordinate? Will another team consider him for a head-coaching position after what happened?
The McDaniels saga is indeed a strange chapter in the Patriots-Colts rivalry, with one of the aspects often being overlooked: he had never signed a contract with Indianapolis – the team for some reason just announced the move before everything was finalized. It doesn’t make McDaniels’ decision to bow out much better, but the context no longer paints him in the same bad light as if he had broken his contract to remain in New England. I therefore think that most teams would still consider him for future openings. After all, there are only so many good coaches available (and McDaniels is just that, at least when it comes to coordinating an offense).
So why did McDaniels return to New England? It likely is a combination of three things:
Money: The Patriots have made him by far the highest-paid coordinator in the NFL and pay him head coaching money
Family: McDaniels has four children and moving them away from the Boston area likely was a tough decision to make
Future: While a lot can change over the next few years, I do think that McDaniels is the frontrunner to replace Bill Belichick as New England’s next head coach (with fellow John Carroll alumnus Nick Caserio taking over as GM)
APC: If you were game planning against the Patriots, how would you attack them on offense? On defense?
The Patriots offense is tough to play or game plan against because it is so multi-faceted: it can wear you out with the running game, it can use quick strikes in the passing game. Ultimately, I would try to do the following three things to slow the unit down:
Be physical with the receivers to try to mess with their timing
Create pressure with just four to flood the underneath zones and middle of the field
Play smart and don’t get fooled by formations or misdirection plays
This is, of course, all easier written than accomplished but if a team successfully and consistently does those things it could at least lead to breaking New England’s rhythm and slowing the potent offense down a bit.
Attacking the defense might be easier, because its weaknesses appear to be more glaring. Consequently, I would try to do the following against the unit if I were Green Bay:
Attack horizontally and not vertically, as the Patriots are strong against the big play but have issues defending crossing patterns
Isolate the linebackers in coverage against shifty running backs
Don’t try to attack Stephon Gilmore
New England’s defense has had its moments so far this year but has not yet put it all together to really live up to its potential.
The one thing that can help Green Bay continue this above all else is playing sound complementary football: the defense and offense – and special teams! – need to work in unison and don’t put each other in bad situations like short fields or scoreboard-deficits.
APC: Finally, it’s prediction time. Which team wins on Sunday and why?
I think the Packers are far better than the record suggests and actually have the offensive firepower to keep up with the Patriots. That being said, I’m not betting against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. It’s prime time. It’s November. It’s Foxboro. Conditions are perfect, especially considering that the team needs to keep up with Kansas City in the standings. I believe that New England will be well prepared and that the team with the better coaching staff will come out victoriously. Normally, the Patriots are that team.
We’d like to thank Bernd and Pats Pulpit for answering our questions. Be sure to check out our Q&A session over there, as well as their fantastic coverage of all things Patriots. As always, keep your internet machines tuned to Acme Packing Company this Sunday for our comprehensive game-day coverage of Packers versus Patriots.