Three games into the 2018 season, the New England Patriots finally looked mortal.
So, what went wrong early in the season, and how did the Patriots fix those issues to go on and advance to play the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII?
Rookie running back Sony Michel missed Week 1 with a knee injury and struggled in Weeks 2 and 3 as the Patriots threw him into the fire with no preseason and hardly any training camp.
That led Tony Massarotti of The Sports Hub to shriek about Michel, “He sucks! He blows! He’s awful!”
Then he didn’t, and the Patriots’ run game has hardly turned back. Now it’s perhaps the biggest strength of the team.
The Patriots’ offensive line has played better as it’s jelled, and Michel is running with more confidence and less hesitation.
DEPLETED RECEIVER CORPS
There was a real lack of patience through the first four weeks of the season when Julian Edelman was serving a four-game suspension. The Patriots acquired Josh Gordon in a trade with the Cleveland Browns, and the offense started to fire on all cylinders when Edelman returned.
The Patriots lost Gordon when he was suspended again after Week 15. Then, ironically, the offense really started to click in Week 17 and beyond.
The Patriots certainly don’t have the best pass-catchers of quarterback Tom Brady’s career, but they’re making it work with Edelman, running back James White, tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receivers Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan leading the way.
Dorsett has stepped up with touchdowns in the Patriots’ first two postseason games. Gronkowski also started to look like himself again in the Patriots’ AFC Championship Game win.
There was a significant overreaction to Weeks 2 and 3, when the Patriots were without their best front-seven defender in Trey Flowers. They couldn’t get pressure on the Jacksonville Jaguars or Detroit Lions, but it was largely understandable. The Patriots’ pass rush is top-heavy, and they missed Flowers.
The pass rush really hasn’t been an issue since Flowers returned from his two-week absence. The Patriots posted the week’s highest pressure rate in each of their postseason wins. They pressured Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers on 45.3 percent of snaps in the divisional round. They pressured Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes on 50 percent of dropbacks in the conference title game.
One of the loudest early critiques of the 2018 Patriots among pundits and fans was “speed at linebacker.” The Patriots were getting beat on crossing routes over the middle, and linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts were getting blamed.
After missing most of the 2017 season, Hightower did appear slightly rusty to start the 2018 season. Then when he knocked off said rust, some of those issues started to go away. The Patriots’ secondary also became a major strength as the season progressed. The play of cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and JC Jackson and safetys Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung made any lack of speed at linebacker less glaring. Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones and Duron Harmon also contributed.
Hightower, Van Noy and Roberts all wound up having strong seasons. Hightower and Van Noy did their best work as pass rushers on the edge, while Roberts excelled as a run defender inside.