With the Buffalo Bills traveling to Foxborough to face the New England Patriots this weekend, we got some inside info from Rich Hill, the EIC of Pats Pulpit, on Bill Belichick’s squad.
1. In what areas of his game has Jimmy Garoppolo made the biggest strides?
Rich Hill: Jimmy Garoppolo has vastly improved at handling pressure in the pocket. He might have just needed some additional experience in live action, but pressure really threw him off his game during the preseason. It seems like after he was hit against the Cardinals he really settled down and was able to maneuver through traffic and climb the pocket to deliver the ball down the field.
Now I'm not sure if this progress is gone thanks to his injury, but it was a notable development, especially because the Cardinals love to blitz more than almost every team in the league.
Other than handling pressure, he seems to have gotten over his slow starts which hampered his production in the preseason. He used to need a drive or two to get the feeling of the game, but he's been able to jump right in and produce. Small sample size, of course, but that's what we've seen.
2. Who's been the best pass-rusher on the Patriots thus far? Jabaal Sheard? Chris Long? Someone else?
RH: Chris Long definitely deserves the mantle. Jabaal Sheard suffered an MCL sprain in the preseason and he didn't look fully healthy until this past Thursday against the Texans, while Trey Flowers has been fairly quiet during Rob Ninkovich's suspension. Long, on the other handle, is extremely disruptive and lives in the pocket. He might not rack up the sacks, but he gets the quarterback on the move and into the clutches of other players.
I wouldn't expect to see much of a Patriots pass rush against Tyrod Taylor, though. The Patriots are happy to squeeze the pocket to prevent Taylor from escaping and using his legs.
3. How big of an impact has Martellus Bennett had through three games?
RH: He's been a godsend. Rob Gronkowski has played 14 snaps this year- two of them on kneel downs- so Bennett has stepped up as an every-down tight end. He's been able to catch the ball and pick up yards after the catch, but he's been most impressive as a blocker. The Patriots kept him on the line for much of week 1 against the Cardinals since starting LT Nate Solder was out, and then again in week 3 to help against J.J. Watt.
4. Where are the Patriots most vulnerable?
RH: Quarterback, no question. Jacoby Brissett is a rookie quarterback that doesn't turn the ball over, but he won't produce any offense on his own. Jimmy Garoppolo is still dealing with a bum shoulder and might not be ready to start. I don't think this is a surprising answer.
Beyond that, the Patriots struggle at running the ball up the middle of the line. If you look at the numbers, the Patriots are far more successful when they run the ball towards the outside than when they try inside runs and it's partly due to inexperience. The Patriots have a rookie 3rd round pick at left guard, an undrafted sophomore at center, and a 4th round sophomore at right guard that missed time this preseason with a broken hand.
It's not pretty, but they're clearly improving every week. They're just not at a point where they can be trusted to open up a rushing attack.
5. What would you say has been the most important aspect of their (somewhat) surprising 3-0 start?
RH: The reliance and success of running back LeGarrette Blount has caught me off guard. He's the league-leading rusher and he's averaging 5 yards per carry in the second half (versus 2.5 yards per carry in the first half). He's been a closer and since the Patriots have been able to pick up early leads on their competition, Blount has been able to run out the clock.
Credit goes to the offensive line, to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and to offensive line coach and run game coordinator Dante Scarnecchia for the rushing attack's success. I don't think anyone was expecting it to be as successful, especially with Brissett at quarterback and teams knowing the run is on its way.