The Green Bay Packers return to Lambeau this week to take on the New England Patriots in a rematch of the 1997 Super Bowl. It hasn’t been the easiest road for the Pats these last few seasons after Tom Brady’s departure, but they are still one of the most well-coached units with Bill Belichick leading the team.
Mac Jones probably won’t play against the Packers because he sprained his ankle late in the game against the Baltimore Ravens last week. However, they shouldn’t underestimate their opponent. In 2008, Belichick coaxed an 11-5 record out of the Pats with Matt Cassel under center. New England also nearly finished .500 with a past-his-prime Cam Newton last year.
Here are three things the Patriots do well that the Packers need to watch out for.
Rotate Running Backs
For the last few years, it feels like the Patriots have been ahead of the curve when it comes to running back usage. Even when they drafted Sony Michel in the first round of the 2018 draft, they still would manage to rotate Rex Burkhead and James White in. They have kept this philosophy going to this day.
Damian Harris is the starter on paper and usually gets most of the handoffs. Still, Rhamondre Stevenson has been more involved in the offense. And before his injury, the Patriots found a way to work old friend Ty Montgomery into the backfield.
Stevenson has been the lead back for the past two weeks. He’s accounted for 62% of the offensive snaps each week, while Harris has seen a decrease in usage. We can chalk this up to Stevenson being the better pass-catcher and the Patriots needing a better receiving threat with Montgomery out. Still, it is interesting to see the trends that have played out this year and how the Patriots have kept their running backs fresh.
Protect the Quarterback
A reliable offensive line has been one of New England’s foundations. For the last few years, the Patriots have invested in their offensive line. However, they’ve been less committed to building out their receiving corps. They seem to assume they’ll be able to get separation with the time the O-line offers the quarterback.
However, the Patriots made two surprising moves on the offensive line in the offseason. They traded guard Shaq Mason for a fifth-round pick. New England also drafted lineman Cole Strange in the first round, far ahead of where many experts predicted he would go.
Still, the offensive line seems to be doing as well as it has in the last couple of seasons. Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn are on the edges keeping the quarterback’s front and blindside protected, and they have started the season strong. Guard Michael Onwenu has continued to impress, allowing just 27 pressures on 943 pass-blocking snaps in his career.
If the Packers defensive line is going to try to get pressure, coordinator Joe Berry is going to have to isolate the weak spot of the O-line and attack it relentlessly as he did against the Vikings.
Cover No. 1 Receivers
With the loss of J.C. Jackson in the offseason, it would be reasonable to expect the Patriots’ secondary to have a hard time replacing his impact. While the Pats can still feel Jackson’s loss, the secondary has moved on, much as they did after Stephon Gilmore departed. New England’s secondary is a perfect embodiment of next man up. In this case, Jonathan Jones is the next man up.
Jones spent the first few years of his career serving as the slot cornerback for the Patriots, but he has seized his chance at a starting outside corner role. He has been PFF’s highest-rated corner to start the season, allowing just six catches on nine targets and is allowing a passer rating of just 60.2 on passes thrown in his direction.
Jones has proven that he isn’t just a zone cornerback. He has been in man coverage on 44 of 90 snaps where he has been in coverage. Jones also kept the ever-dangerous Tyreek Hill in check during Week 1, allowing only four completions for 50 yards on six targets. Jones’ man wasn’t targeted at all in Week 2, and his man was only targeted three times in Week 3 against the Ravens.
With the Packers avoiding Jaylon Johnson in Week 2 and Aaron Rodgers‘ ability to find the mismatches in coverage, don’t be surprised if you don’t see the Packers offense look in his direction much on Sunday.