New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was almost bragging about the depth of his defense this week, noting they can go 20 players deep on the unit.
That’s great, and it’s the strength of New England’s overall operation right now. The Patriots have the best defense in the NFL, and it’s winning the team games, including Thursday night’s over the New York Giants.
But sometimes depth on one side of the football means some shallowness on the other end. And that came to a head Thursday after the Patriots suffered three key injuries. Wide receiver Josh Gordon (knee), fullback Jakob Johnson (shoulder) and tight end Matt LaCosse (knee) all left Thursday night’s game and didn’t return. Running back Rex Burkhead and wide receiver Phillip Dorsett were inactive heading into the game.
That left the Patriots with Julian Edelman and undrafted rookies Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski as the team’s only wide receivers and Ryan Izzo as their lone tight end. The Patriots were able to mix in Sony Michel, James White and Brandon Bolden at running back, but they essentially were stuck in 11 personnel beginning at the end of the second quarter and through the rest of the game. They brought on guard Jermaine Eluemunor for one snap as a jumbo tight end on a QB sneak by quarterback Tom Brady after the three players left the game.
The Patriots withstood the injuries. They still were able to move the ball and actually scored two touchdowns on QB sneaks by Brady despite their limited depth. The Patriots averaged 8.2 yards per passing play and 3.9 yards per carry with those personnel packages.
The Patriots were forced to simplify their offense, and on many plays, Meyers and Olszewski were simply sent downfield to clear out space for a pass to Edelman or White. But there was a decent amount to like from the undrafted wideouts thrust into extended action.
Meyers was the more impressive of the two, which should come as no surprise. He was a training camp and preseason standout who was buried on the depth chart behind Edelman, Gordon, Dorsett and briefly Antonio Brown. He caught four passes on four targets for 54 yards Thursday with two big receptions. He now has eight catches on 10 targets for 120 yards on the season.
The Patriots trusted Meyers to primarily play in the slot against the Giants. He ran 72.7 percent of his snaps from the inside position.
Meyers worked out of the slot on his first big catch of the game, a 23-yarder on second-and-15 with 9:19 left in the second quarter. Meyers ran a wheel route and hauled in a back-shoulder throw, sprawling out for the catch. You can watch it here. Running back Brandon Bolden scored a touchdown three plays later.
His second big catch came with two minutes left in the first half. He ran an over route out of the slot and did a terrific job of snagging the ball out of the air with his hands then immediately lifting it up to avoid a pass breakup. Watch the play here and here.
Olszewski, an extremely raw pass-catcher, reeled in 2-of-3 targets for 34 yards. It was the first two catches and three targets of his young career. He played cornerback at Division II Bemidji State and mostly has been used as a punt returner through six games. He was thrust into the offense Thursday and contributed.
Olszewski found a nice hole in the Giants’ zone coverage while running a deep in-route with 14:19 left in the fourth quarter on second-and-8 to pick up 29 yards and a first down.
He lined up out of the backfield positioned behind Brady for his first catch, a 5-yard pickup.
Brady simply connected with Olszewski on a swing pass on that play.
The Patriots should be fine whenever they get into a situation where they use Meyers more on offense. He’s the No. 4 option at the position, but he’s played well in limited snaps. He’s on pace for 21 catches for 320 yards and could have even more production if the Patriots get permanently shallow at the position.
Olszewski is best used in spurts as a gadget player. The Patriots would be in trouble if they had to count on him as a starting option given his lack of experience.
Dorsett could be back from his hamstring injury when the Patriots play next Monday against the New York Jets, but there’s no word on the severity of Gordon’s knee injury. It’s a good sign that he stayed on the sideline for the entirety of the second half after he initially left the game in the first half. He was spotted gingerly walking through the locker room Friday.
If one of Gordon or Dorsett can’t play next Monday, then Meyers should be fine as the Patriots’ No. 3 receiver. If both can’t go, then the Patriots might need to fill out their wide receiver depth. New England is eligible to sign training camp standout Maurice Harris after the Week 6 games conclude because his injury settlement will expire. First-round pick N’Keal Harry can return to practice next week, but he can’t be activated until after Week 8.
The Patriots will have an open roster spot after they place fullback Jakob Johnson on injured reserve. The Patriots will most likely fill that spot with a fullback or tight end. Izzo significantly struggled as a blocker Thursday, and LaCosse can’t seem to stay healthy. Perhaps it’s time to bring back Ben Watson or re-sign Dwayne Allen. The Patriots also could scour NFL practice squads to bring aboard an outside tight end. If the Patriots want to add another piece before the NFL trade deadline, however, they’ll need to go cheap in the interim.