We should have seen the Patriots’ close Week 16 victory coming from a mile away. Despite the Jaguars’ 2-12 record coming into the matchup, the Patriots were lucky to walk away from Jacksonville with an 11th victory in the win column.
On Sunday, the Patriots faced an uphill battle from the opening kickoff with Alfonzo Dennard, Aqib Talib and Brandon Spikes not starting. Dennard and Talib’s injuries forced Devin McCourty back to cornerback, Kyle Arrington from the slot to the outside and a combination of Patrick Chung and Tavon Wilson to safety. Needless to say, it looked a whole lot like the secondary that struggled so much to open the season. Brandon Spikes‘ injury forced similar movement throughout the defense.
In fact, to start the game, just four players were in their normal starting positions — only Chandler Jones, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Deaderick were in their normal roles. Spikes had pushed Dont’a Hightower from strong-side linebacker to the middle, Rob Ninkovich from left defensive end to strong-side linebacker and Trevor Scott from the bench to defensive end.
The injuries in the secondary moved Steve Gregory from the strong safety role he’s been manning for four weeks to free safety in mostly two deep sets. The injury to Spikes also forced special teamer Tracy White to play in nickel packages and Marquice Cole to man the slot in sub packages.
While some of these position changes seem minor, it did cause an obvious shake-up in the Patriots’ defense. Needless to say, there’s nothing to worry about from the defense based on Sunday’s performance, and the level of concern should be low overall in New England.
Before the Patriots play their first game of the postseason, they should see Rob Gronkowski, Dennard, Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham return. Talib should also return to a full set of snaps — he only played eight on defense against the Jaguars while recovering from a hip injury. New England has barely played this season with both Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez on the field at the same time.
Those players returning should see the Patriots improve in all facets of the game. Gronkowski is one of the most important players on the team’s offense and contributes heavily in both the passing game as one of the best receiving tight ends in the NFL, and in the running game as the best blocking tight end in the league.
Dennard and Talib’s returns will push Arrington back inside and McCourty back to safety. It will also allow Bill Belichick to pick the next best safety to play next to McCourty. New England’s pass defense had improved dramatically since Talib came in and shook up the squad, and they should continue to see that return to improvement. Cunningham will also help the team’s pass defense when he comes back from a four-game suspension this week as he may be the team’s best interior pass rusher.
Finally, Spikes will help improve the run defense. Spikes is a force in the middle of the team’s defense and can fight through blocks like few other NFL linebackers. Spikes also brings an element of fear to the team’s squad that simply doesn’t exist without him. Receivers going over the middle and running backs careening towards him have to have their head on a swivel looking for the dangerous linebacker.
So if you walked away from your television screen down on Sunday afternoon thinking, “how did this happen to my team?” worry not. The dominant Patriots will be back, and they’re primed for a long playoff run. Simply said, as soon as Gronkowski and the defensive backs return, we’ll be seeing a better Patriots team than they’ve been all season.
The team hasn’t had Gronkowski, Hernandez and an improved secondary all on the field in a single game. And if the Patriots’ postseason opposition underestimates them due to a poor performance against the lowly Jags, that’s all the better.