8 priority areas for the Patriots this season

Being better on the road, as well as on third down, are two places to start.

Bill Belichick
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick during the team's minicamp in June. –AP
COMMENTARY

According to the Instagram missives of his girlfriend, Bill Belichick spent at least part of his weekend on Nantucket, partaking in “Crab Fest 2019,” and appearing to enjoy the penultimate weekend of his summer vacation. “Good friends! Good food! Good music! Good times!” were all had, according to the caption posted for the photo collection by Linda Holliday.

Belichick best enjoy the luxuries of ACK life and his recently renamed “VIII Rings” boat now, because football season is coming fast — with Patriots rookies reporting the Sunday after next, and veterans due to Gillette Stadium on Wednesday, July 24. Training camp begins a day later, formally signaling the start of the Pats’ preparation for the new season. Of course, those preparations have actually been underway all offseason, as the New England staff has undoubtedly poured over tape in studying their opponents and tracking the ways rosters have been reshaped. A big part of the Pats’ focus will be on fundamentals, and building their own strengths, but some of what’s installed starting later this month will be with their schedule in mind.

That considered, here are eight priority areas for the Patriots’ as they prepare for the season, based on the slate that awaits:

1. Seizing a chance to get the running game going early

Only six teams executed a higher percentage of rushing plays than the Patriots’ 45.1 percent in 2018, which featured the team’s second-highest run-pass balance this decade, and was preceded by New England using a first-round pick on a running back who caught all of seven passes during the regular season. In the postseason, the Pats scored nine of their 11 touchdowns via the ground game, eclipsing 150 rushing yards in all three playoff contests.

The approach made sense, with a quarterback who’s playing on borrowed time and a stable of running backs that represents the deepest position on the roster. And the schedule seems to present an opportunity for the Patriots to further establish that trend at the start of 2019.

Pittsburgh was formidable against the run last season. In fact, New England didn’t emphasize that strength when the teams met in mid-December. But after the Steelers on opening night, the Pats won’t face a run defense that ranked better than 16th last season until traveling to face the Ravens in Week 9. From there, the task figures to remain challenging — though by the time they get to Baltimore, the Patriots may well look like a team that solidifies its preference to go forth as more of a ground-and-pound attack.

2. Being ready for beefed-up defensive fronts

Of course, things have a tendency to change from week to week in the NFL, let alone year to year. And most of those teams the Patriots will face early made significant investments in their defensive fronts during this offseason.

The Steelers spent their first-round pick on a linebacker, but after the opener the Pats will play six straight games against clubs that used a Day 1 choice on a defensive lineman. All three of the other AFC East teams used their initial draft selection on a defensive tackle, so the Patriots are slated to face each of them twice, and later in the season they’ll face a Cowboys team that re-signed stud end DeMarcus Lawrence and a Chiefs team that believes it’s upgraded at a couple of spots in the trenches.

It remains to be seen how quickly those players can get up to speed in their new settings — but the infusion of raw talent, combined with the inference that those areas will be an area of emphasis for those teams, speaks to the importance of the Patriots’ offensive line playing as consistently well as it did last season.

3. Defending big receivers

The Patriots traded up near the start of the second round to draft Joejuan Williams, a cornerback whose 6-foot, 4-inch frame seems built for countering big-bodied receivers. And if that’s how New England intends to use him, it may be important that the rookie is ready to go right away.

Looking at projected depth charts of the Pats’ opponents, and focusing specifically on the top four receivers, in four of their first five games (and five of their first seven), the Patriots are slated to face at least two receivers who stand 6-foot-2 or taller. It doesn’t get easier later in the year, when the Eagles’ Alshon Jeffery and Bengals’ AJ Green are looming as wideouts, as are the Eagles’ Zach Ertz and Chiefs’ Travis Kelce as tight ends, but there’s some urgency for the Patriots to find out early what Williams can handle.

If he’s not ready, the Patriots’ next-tallest corners are each listed at 6-foot-1, those being Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson. Or, especially if physicality is the preferred manner of defense, the Patriots could press 5-foot-11 safety Patrick Chung into service near the line of scrimmage.

4. Countering teams that like to throw to running backs and tight ends

Chung has been a central figure of the Patriots defensive scheme since returning to Foxborough after a season in Philadelphia because of his ability to provide pass coverage from within the box, and his talents figure to be tested again this season.

A total of 27 running backs and tight ends were targeted on an average of at least five passes per game last season, and the Patriots’ schedule is slated to bring them up against nine of them. Kelce and Ertz highlight the tight ends on the schedule, but Jordan Reed (Redskins), Evan Engram (Giants), and David Njoku (Browns) aren’t slouches, either — and the Pats are set to take on each part of that trio in a three-week stretch of October.

Of note regarding the collection of pass-catching running backs they’ll face is that the number New England will face doesn’t even factor in Le’Veon Bell, the new Jet who caught 160 throws in the two seasons before sitting out last season.

5. Slowing a collection of upper-level backs

Bell is just one of several big-name running backs the Patriots will likely need to corral this season — as beyond a few legitimately elite stars there’s also a second wave littered with several other talented threats.

Assuming he didn’t lose a step in sitting out his age-26 season, Bell projects to be a handful in Weeks 3 and 7. Before the second time they face Bell, the Patriots are scheduled to take on New York’s other dual-purpose stud, the Giants’ Saquon Barkley. Then waiting in Week 11 is Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboy who led the NFL in rushing yards last year, is averaging more than 101 rushing yards per game in his three-year career, and added a new dynamic by averaging 5.1 catches per game in 2018.

Scattered elsewhere throughout the schedule are Mark Ingram, Joe Mixon, Lamar Miller, and LeSean McCoy, all of whom have 1,000-yard seasons to their career credits, plus James Conner and Nick Chubb, each of whom ran for at least 970 yards last season in their first chance as a featured back.

The Patriots were mediocre against the run last regular season, and only eight teams gave up more receiving yards to running backs than did New England. But a key to the most recent Super Bowl run was the Pats’ ability to turn teams one-dimensional, the Chargers, Chiefs, and Rams combined for 122 yards on the ground in three games. It helped that the Pats were playing with a lead for most of the AFC portion of the postseason, and Todd Gurley was clearly not completely healthy in the Super Bowl. But New England’s defensive line played well, as did Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy in the linebacker corps, and the hope has to be that Jamie Collins can come in and at that level help the club recoup some of what it lost with Trey Flowers’ exit up front.

6. Needing to improve on third down

After barely converting 40 percent of third-down bids last season, and ranking 13th league-wide, the Patriots figure to be challenged in their efforts to become more efficient.

In the Jets (who ranked second before adding second-team All-Pro C.J. Mosley this spring), Ravens (third), Browns (seventh), Eagles (eighth), Bills (ninth), and Steelers (10th), the Pats will be confronted by six of the 10 best third-down defenses in football for 2018, with six of those contests coming in the nine games before New England gets to its bye week.

Particularly by their own standards, the Patriots were also underwhelming in the red zone last season — scoring touchdowns on a tick under 60 percent of trips inside the 20 to rank 15th. But the obstacle to improving there projects to be more manageable. The Eagles were the league’s stingiest team in the red zone a year ago, but the Pats won’t face another team from the 2018 top five. On the contrary, they’ll face three of last season’s four worst red zone defenses, and a majority of their games will be against opponents that ranked among the league’s lower half.

7. Traveling better

The Pats nearly played themselves out a first-round bye because of two brutal road losses in December, and with those defeats — plus stinkers at Jacksonville, Detroit, and Tennessee — they wound up the year with a 3-5 record away from Foxborough.

Of the Patriots’ eight opponents this season, six were .500 or better at home last season, with the group compiling an aggregate record of 36-28. That includes a 2-6 mark from the Jets, who were active in free agency this spring and are now coached by Adam Gase, whose Dolphins beat Belichick’s traveling teams in each of the past two seasons.

The preseason could present New England a couple of special opportunities to get more comfortable with playing away from Gillette Stadium, as the Patriots will go on the road to hold joint practices with the Lions and Titans ahead of exhibitions against each of those teams. Logistically the routine won’t be the same as readying for a regular-season contest, nor will the game planning or intensity. But those extended trips could be chances for the players and coaches to get more productively comfortable with being away from the built-in comforts of home.

8. Handling young, athletic, mobile QBs

On opening night, a 42-year-old Brady’s quarterbacking counterpart is expected to be 37-year-old Ben Roethlisberger, a player he’s been competing against since 2004. After that, though, the Patriots defense is set to line up for most of the season against a QB who was born after Brady matriculated at the University of Michigan in the fall of 1995.

After Roethlisberger the Patriots could face a first- or second-year quarterback in each of the next eight weeks, depending in part upon how quickly the Giants take the keys away from Eli Manning and turn them over to Duke product and sixth-overall pick Daniel Jones. Regardless, there’s a decent chance the Pats will face Josh Rosen (born February 1997, second season), then Sam Darnold (June 1997, second), then Josh Allen (May 1996, second), then Dwayne Haskins (May 1997, rookie), then Jones (May 1997, rookie) or possibly Manning, then Darnold again, then Baker Mayfield (April 1995, second), then Lamar Jackson (January 1997, second).

And that’s just before the bye. After the week off the Patriots are set to encounter a more accomplished and experienced collection of signal callers — but even that group is still young, and has made its mark with athleticism and mobility. First is Carson Wentz of the Eagles, followed by Dak Prescott of the Cowboys, Deshaun Watson of the Texans, and Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs. Before the bye, Jackson will give the Pats a taste of the threat a QB can be with his legs, but each part of that subsequent quartet can all throw the ball, too. It’ll be interesting to see what that stretch says about the athleticism of the Patriots’ defense — and what the slate of QBs, on the whole, says about the historic ability of Belichick and his staff to schematically overwhelm or confuse young quarterbacks.

Then again, we could just ask the Rams and Jared Goff.

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