FOXBORO, Mass. — With so many injuries plaguing the defense, Bill Belichick and the Patriots are trying to avoid any more catastrophic losses.
That might explain why New England was using more of a rotation along the defensive line, at linebacker and cornerback on Sunday against the Browns. Typically, the Patriots have two starting cornerbacks and a third player comes off the bench when the team goes to the nickel defense. Against Cleveland, however, Aqib Talib and Logan Ryan were the starters, then when the Patriots went nickel, Ryan came off and Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington came on the field.
In the previous seven weeks, Chris Jones had missed an average of just two snaps per game. Against the Browns, Jones was off the field for 11 snaps. As the season is progressing, players are wearing down. Small injuries are piling up and more rest is needed.
That’s why Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones were the only players on the field for every snap on Sunday. Devin McCourty and Talib missed just one play apiece.
It seemed to work for New England. Chris Jones played better than he has in weeks at defensive tackle and all four parts of the rotation at linebacker – Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher and Jamie Collins – had solid games. That rotation helped contribute to a solid effort against the run for New England. The Patriots allowed Browns running backs to rush for just 2.1 yards per carry.
To hear more about how the Patriots are looking heading into Week 15, check out this week’s No-Huddle Offense below.
1. Patriots switch to a 4-3.
It seemed to make sense to ditch the 3-4 and go back to a 4-3, which is why I wrote about that very possibility last week. The Patriots were struggling to defend the run and the pieces were no longer in place to keep trotting out a 3-4. It put more emphasis on the interior line, which is one of the biggest weaknesses on this roster, and less on the deep linebacker corps.
The switch to a 4-3 appeared to work against the Browns. The defense did not perform perfectly, but there was plenty to like, especially in the run game.
2. Is Sealver Siliga a keeper?
The third-year defensive tackle has played well for New England since coming off the practice squad. He played 14 snaps in his Patriots debut, then 53 in his second week on the active roster, so Belichick must have liked what he saw in Week 13.
But Siliga is a player who has bounced around some very smart organizations. He was cut by the 49ers in 2011, traded by the Broncos to the Seahawks earlier this season, then released by the Seahawks, signed to their practice squad and released again.
Obviously it’s not unheard of for a player to eventually find success with his fourth team, but it’s probably best to temper expectations with Siliga. It’s possible something finally clicked for Siliga in Foxboro, but if the nose tackle was going to be a game-changer, he probably could have stuck on Seattle’s practice squad.
Who knows, though. Siliga has played better than the other options New England has at nose tackle the past two weeks.
3. The Patriots enjoy some Christmas tunes.
While we’re on the topic of Siliga, there was a light moment in the locker room on Wednesday when the defensive tackle grabbed some speakers from his locker, sat in the back corner of the locker room and turned on “Silver Bells.” Ryan Allen, Danny Aiken, Braxton Cave and some other bottom-of-the-roster types joined Siliga and the specialists to sit around, talk and enjoy some holiday cheer.
Yes, it was a slow day in the locker room. But it was amusing to see a group of football players sitting around listening to Christmas tunes.
4. Josh Boyce is the next man up at wide receiver.
Coming out of training camp, Kenbrell Thompkins emerged as the team’s starting “X” receiver. Aaron Dobson was next on the depth chart, followed by Boyce. Boyce is proving just how close all three players are in talent and comfort within the offense, though.
With Thompkins and Dobson out against the Browns, Boyce had his chance to step up. And he played well. There really wasn’t much of a dropoff from the “starters” to Boyce.
Each player has their own strength and appear to be keepers for the Patriots. Dobson has the best downfield ability, Boyce is the most dangerous after the catch and Thompkins is probably the best route runner of the trio.
5. Jay Cutler is not the answer in Chicago.
I’m going to stray from the Patriots for a bit here. It’s pretty obvious Josh McCown has outplayed Cutler since taking over as the starter for the Bears, right? I think Chicago needs to move on from Cutler this offseason. And that may mean not even slapping the franchise tag on him in hopes of trading the signal caller.
Cutler’s never going to be an elite quarterback. Chicago should have been drafting second- and third-round quarterbacks for years now. They were lucky to find a player like McCown, who could fit into Marc Trestman‘s offense so well, though.
Since Cutler will likely never be the answer, Chicago should move forward with McCown, the much cheaper option, while also drafting a quarterback in May (that still sounds odd to say). For the rest of this season, I don’t mind the idea of giving the reins back to Cutler, but if he’s not playing as well as McCown, Chicago should not be afraid to make another switch.
There’s just nothing about Cutler that says he should be getting franchise quarterback money. The Bears are better off trying to find a better player to move forward with.
6. Mike Shanahan is not being crazy.
Speaking of quarterback controversies, I don’t see anything too crazy about what Shanahan is doing with Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins. Griffin hasn’t played well and he’s obviously the franchise quarterback in Washington. So since he’s not playing well and he’s obviously not 100 percent, why not rest him for three games that don’t matter?
Washington might as well see what they have in Kirk Cousins, too. If he proves to some team (maybe even Chicago) that he can be a future starter in the NFL, Washington could get something for him this offseason. That was the hope when drafting him in the fourth round last year, right?
7. Danny Amendola’s snaps are still limited.
It wasn’t a surprise to see Julian Edelman get more snaps than Amendola on Sunday, but it was pretty shocking to see Boyce get 10 more snaps than the high-priced free agent, who has become a slot receiver and not much more in this offense.
Maybe Amendola’s snaps are being limited because his groin is still bothering him, or maybe Edelman is just that far ahead of him. Amendola’s snaps could see a jump with Rob Gronkowski out for the season.
8. D.J. Williams is a player to watch.
I, like many others, had high hopes for Williams when he came out of Arkansas. He couldn’t find much playing time in a crowded tight end group in Green Bay. He also didn’t stick around Jacksonville for long, which is much more glaring.
But players can catch on in New England after being shunned elsewhere, like Siliga or even Matthew Mulligan. Williams is by far the best receiving option left at the position for New England. He won’t contribute much as a blocker, but he could draw some mismatches if split out wide.
Williams is the closest thing the Patriots have had to Aaron Hernandez since that “flex” tight end was released.
9. Tight end will be a priority this offseason.
I already thought New England would look for a tight end in the first round in this year’s draft. With speculation being that Gronkowski could miss a year after tearing his ACL and MCL, the Patriots could double up on tight ends in this year’s draft. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jace Amaro and Eric Ebron are names to watch.
Seferian-Jenkins is the most well-rounded tight end in the draft. He (surprisingly) won the Mackey Award this season. When Washington was recruiting the 6-foot-6 tight end, there were talks of moving him to offensive tackle due to his impressive blocking ability. He plead guilty to driving under the influence during the offseason and spent one day in jail. Otherwise, Seferian-Jenkins is clean from a character standpoint.
10. More tight ends with injury questions are available in free agency.
There are also some intriguing free agent options next year, though some, like Dennis Pitta, Jermichael Finley, Dustin Keller and Fred Davis pose their own injury concerns. Brandon Pettigrew, Scott Chandler and Garrett Graham will also be out there.
11. LeGarrette Blount is running much better.
I had some questions about Blount when New England first signed him, but as the season has progressed, the Oregon product is running much better. It appears he’s fixed some of his issues as a short-yardage back. Blount has been annihilating defenders the last two weeks.