Over the last few weeks, the New England Patriots have been without one of their top two running backs, Damien Harris. While Harris is expected to return against the Las Vegas Raiders, Rhamondre Stevenson, the Patriots’ other back, suffered an injury on Monday and Stevenson’s status for Sunday is now in question.
Rookie Pierre Strong Jr. looked sharp last week for New England, giving the Raiders another rusher to worry about and making it difficult to determine who to prepare for. So, I made sure to ask Taylor Kyles of Pats Pulpit about the running back situation as well as a few other questions to give Raider Nation a preview of the game.
Question: Earlier in the season, there was a lot of chatter about the Patriots making a quarterback switch but Mac Jones appears to have taken command of the starting spot over the last month or so. What made those conversations start and how did Jones manage to silence his critics? Or has he?
Answer: The Patriots wanted to be an aggressive, downfield passing attack early in the season. They were a more explosive offense during this phase, but the philosophy clearly didn’t fit their personnel and Mac Jones started throwing interceptions at an uncharacteristic rate, largely due to poor decisions.
When Jones had to miss time due to a high ankle sprain and top backup Brian Hoyer suffered a concussion after less than a quarter of action in Green Bay, the team was forced to roll with rookie Bailey Zappe. The fourth-round QB helped New England pull itself out of a rut by not turning the ball over and capitalizing on most opportunities when they presented themselves. That said, it was clear to those watching closely that Zappe is not yet a starting caliber player and a significant step down from a first-round talent.
Despite being in just his second season, Jones is a leader in the locker room and players defended him against accusations of a QB controversy. When he returned, the team went back to their quick passing game roots and turnover numbers improved, but offensive line issues and inconsistency at receiver has forced the offense to play conservatively.
Because of those factors, and the infamous coaching staff situation, I don’t think anyone watching Jones the past few weeks would blame him for the offense’s struggles. There are glimpses of growth and talent, but he’s been fighting an uphill battle.
Q: How likely is it that Rhamonde Stevenson and/or Damien Harris play on Sunday, and what would you expect to see from the Patriots’ offense if they can’t play?
A: Stevenson hasn’t participated in practice this week, while Harris has been limited. Based on this, I’d wager Stevenson rests this week and Harris plays on a conservative snap count, though I could also see the team spelling him an extra week.
I’d be more worried about this situation if not for the emergence of the Patriots’ rookie running backs in Arizona. Despite being drafted in the sixth-round, former South Carolina back Kevin Harris received the lion’s share of snaps once Stevenson went down. He’s a physical runner with exceptional vision and enough burst to catch defenders off guard. He fits well into the team’s workhorse role and held up well in pass protection.
Former South Dakota State Jackrabbit Pierre Strong Jr was RB2 following Stevenson’s injury, but he showed off the explosive potential that made him a fourth-round selection on a few runs and one electric screen.
If the Patriots’ top-two backs are indeed out, expect majority gap runs with Kevin Harris in the backfield and more zone concepts with Strong Jr.
Q: DraftKings Sportsbook has the Raiders’ total points set at 21.5 and it’s no secret that their offense goes as Josh Jacobs goes. So, two-part question, how do you think New Englands’ run defense stacks up against Jacobs and Las Vegas’ rushing attack, and would you take the over or under on that bet?
A: The Patriots’ defense has been excellent against rushing attacks without a dual-threat passer this season, but their performances against James Conner last week and the Packers earlier this season do give me some pause.
Despite being an excellent tackling team, the defense struggled bringing down Green Bay’s big backs and had some rough moments against James Conner, who scored a 10-yard touchdown while carrying several defenders.
If the Raiders can exploit the Patriots’ even nickel fronts and bounce a couple of duo runs against 5-man surfaces, Jacobs may be able to rip off a few chunk plays to keep the run game a viable threat throughout the game. That said, the Patriots have been tough to score on in the Red Area and the Raiders have struggled in that department, so I’d take the under.
Q: Building on that, Bill Belichick has been known for taking away the opposing team’s best offensive weapon, but the Raiders have two really good weapons in Jacobs and Davante Adams. Between Jacobs and Adams, who do you think Belichick/the Patriots’ defense will prioritize stopping, and what would their plan be for keeping the other guy in check?
A: I think the Patriots’ main priority will be making sure Davante Adams doesn’t kill them. The Patriots are a single-high shell defense at their core, but like most defenses they’ve been more willing to go two-high against teams with a game-changing WR1. While I do think they’ll spend most snaps in cover three or man-free, expect to see some cover two, cover four or six, and two-man mixed in.
If Josh Jacobs’ running forces them into Cover 3 consistently on early downs, it could be a long day for the pass defense.
Q: Josh Uche has been playing well lately and Matthew Judon is currently tied for the league lead in sacks. How do those two complement each other, and what have opponents done to keep them off the quarterback?
A: Matt Judon has been getting a lot of extra attention in the form of doubles and chip blocks the past few weeks, which has helped create a lot of 1-on-1 opportunities for Josh Uche. There have also been times where Judon creating disruption has helped Uche notch sacks.
That said, Uche has looked like a premier pass rusher even though his competition hasn’t been great lately. His burst and bend are rare, and he’s been using hesitation moves and precise hands to give tackles fits. He’s been creating opportunities for himself and his teammates by generating consistent pressure when passer’s don’t get the ball out quickly.