Patriots are well-armed for tough stretch run

The Boston Globe Sports 3 weeks ago

It’s goodbye to the bye and hello to the second half of a season that has been filled with a lot of roster turnover and a lot of victories for the Patriots.

Here’s a look at the team’s positional groupings as it continues its toughest schedule stretch of the season with a game in Philadelphia Sunday.

Quarterback

Tom Brady is in the middle of another remarkable season as he continues to deliver strikes despite working with a revolving receiving corps and an offensive line that has been in flux since July.

Still, the 42-year-old was second in the NFL with 2,609 passing yards through Week 9. With stability and reinforcements on the way for both key positional groups, this offense could start to hum over the stretch run.

Brady already has built chemistry with Mohamed Sanu, and that should only get stronger. With Sanu and Edelman (and a little James White) clicking, the horizontal passing game should be a terror, while also opening up some vertical opportunities (hello, Ben Watson).

Key question: Could the Patriots thrive if Brady had to miss time?

Jarrett Stidham and Cody Kessler are in a “break glass in case of emergency” mode. Stidham’s knowledge of the playbook, his poise, and Josh McDaniels’s ability to tailor-fit game plans could help keep the ship afloat for at least a brief Brady absence.

Running back

This is a deep group but one that has been hampered by the lack of continuity along the offensive line and the absence of fullback James Develin, whose intelligence and crushing blocks made decisions easier for the tailbacks.

Sony Michel (3.3 yards per carry) has had trouble making the first defender miss but has shown positive signs lately (falling behind, 17-0, in Baltimore limited his chances, however), and he should keep that momentum going. Rex Burkhead, who was slowed by a foot injury, can be very productive as a runner and receiver as part of a rotation.

White’s pass-catching prowess is well known, but he’s also an effective ball carrier who does a nice job of weaving his way through traffic and sidestepping defenders. He might have the surest hands in the league.

Brandon Bolden is another solid rotational contributor as a runner and receiver — his knowledge of this playbook is elite. Rookie Damien Harris is caught in a numbers crunch, but that 13-yard run against the Browns is reason for optimism.

Key question: What about the short-yardage struggles?

Nobody has established themselves as a pile pusher. Burkhead was solid in these situations during the postseason, so line him up behind James “Fullback” Ferentz and feed him.

Wide receiver

Mohamed Sanu’s arrival has alleviated some concerns with this group — could N’Keal Harry take it a step further?

With Julian Edelman, Sanu, and Phillip Dorsett in place as the top three, this group already can be a handful. When McDaniels went up-tempo, the Ravens were guessing and gassed. Only the Patriots’ own mistakes stopped them. Sanu has a dozen catches in two games, and he might get that many per game from here on out. Edelman still has startling suddenness, and just when teams fall asleep on Dorsett, he burns them for a big gain.

The pups have made strides as Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski have shown flashes — now it’s time for the big dog — Harry — to bark a little.

Key question: Who can emerge as a red-zone threat? Hint: It won’t be No. 87. But it could be No. 15. Harry has the size (6 feet 4 inches, 225 pounds), strength, and surliness to win 50-50 balls.

Tight end

This is another position that has been unsettled since the summer. Ben Watson missed the first six games, Matt LaCosse has been out four, and Ryan Izzo has been out since Week 6.

Watson has been solid since he was re-signed, and his presence, performance, and professionalism should be a boon as LaCosse (who really flashed in the summer before being slowed by multiple leg injuries) and Izzo (who could find himself playing a little fullback going forward) continue to carve out roles.

Key question: Would the big galoot ever really make a comeback?

Rob Gronkowski likes to tease and/or hint that a comeback remains on the table. It’s now or never for the best to ever play the position.

Offensive line

Dante Scarnecchia was pretty blunt in his recent assessment of the line’s play — the legendary assistant hasn’t been happy with anyone’s performance, including his own.

A lack of continuity has led to a lack of consistency, though that could soon change as players get healthy and Scarnecchia can settle on a solid five.

Joe Thuney has been a rock at left guard, and his ability to help (and protect) his fourth left tackle (Marshall Newhouse) is impressive. The right side with Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon is solid and Ted Karras gets better by the week.

Key question: Can Isaiah Wynn return and pick up right where he left off? He has the strength and lateral quickness to wall off defenders and give Tom Brady that extra split-second he needs.

Defensive line

The first line of defense is loaded with productive players who can line up in multiple spots and fronts. Lawrence Guy is the unsung hero of the group. He can play any technique and always is around the ball. Oh, and he’s strong as an ox.

Danny Shelton is lighter and quicker and playing the best football of his five-year career. Adam Butler has exceptional instincts and has shed the “pass-rushing specialist” label and is more comfortable in all situations.

At the ends, John Simon is an unheralded edge setter and Deatrich Wise attacks the pocket like a stormtrooper.

Chase Winovich has been as advertised — a high-motor madman who is relentless in pursuit. Shalique Calhoun has been a solid rotational contributor.

Key question: Was the success the Browns and Ravens had at running the ball an anomaly, or were the Patriots’ flaws exposed? Best guess is it’s the former.

Linebacker

Going back to the spring it was apparent that this group had a chance to be good. It has become scary good.

Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, and Jamie Collins are absurdly athletic and adept at filling multiple roles. All three can rush the passer, are stout against the run, and can drop into coverage. Their ability to disguise their looks until the last second has flummoxed a ton of quarterbacks.

Elandon Roberts and Ja’Whaun Bentley can lower the lumber when teams go heavy.

Key question: How many more jaw-dropping plays can Collins make? The rejuvenated “lionbacker” is in the conversation for defensive player of the year.

Cornerback

One of the deepest position groupings in the league. To wit: Joejuan Williams is an amazing talent and he can’t get on the field because of the depth ahead of him.

Stephon Gilmore is the league’s best. His ability to mirror pass catchers of all sizes and skill sets is uncanny. He just erases opponents. Jason McCourty is wily and reliable — can’t watch his touchdown-saving play in the Super Bowl enough.

Jonathan Jones’s exceptional quickness and speed make him a formidable nickel corner. J.C. Jackson’s ability to track and ballhawk make him a perfect matchup guy against speedy, deep ball receivers.

Key question: Can Williams work his way into the rotation as a matchup guy against bigger, physical receivers?

Safety

Similar to their secondary brethren at cornerback, this group is deep and experienced. Devin McCourty is the glue. He’s recognized as one of the best players at his position — and he’s still underrated. He can cover and he can thump.

Ditto for Patrick Chung, who might have the most cumulative responsibilities of anyone on this defense. He’s like a mini linebacker with a pitbull’s ferociousness. Pound for pound they don’t come much tougher.

Duron Harmon is another instinctive ballhawk, with a penchant for coming up with big plays at big times. Terrance Brooks has looked comfortable in his cameos.

Key question: Can Chung stay healthy? His presence and leadership are vital, so the bye week comes at a perfect time to help him recover from heel and chest injuries.

Specialists

So, Justin Bethel is good, huh? Giving up one of the best players in the league at his position for a projected fourth-round pick still is baffling, but Baltimore’s loss is New England’s gain. With Bethel and Matthew Slater manning the guns, return yards will be hard to come by against this unit.

Core players Nate Ebner, Brandon Bolden, Jonathan Jones, and Devin McCourty provide a second level of coverage.

Jake Bailey has been exceptional, landing nearly half his punts inside the 20-yard line and handling kickoff duties seamlessly. Gunner Olszewski has been a fearless punt returner — he’s going to break one at some point.

Key question: Can Nick Folk lock down the kicking job for the rest of the season? His solid start was overshadowed by the loss in Baltimore.


Jim McBride can be reached at james.mcbride@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.


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