The Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots will meet for the first time during the 2023 NFL season on Sunday afternoon. As is almost always the case, the first six weeks have proven to be an interesting roller coaster ride for both teams. On the line in Week 7: both the chance to course correct and an all-important AFC East divisional victory. Ahead of Sunday’s game, I caught up with writer Taylor Kyles of Pats Pulpit, who provided some key insight into New England’s pitfalls through six games. A record of 1-5 is an unfortunate new low for the 21st Century Patriots. They’re a team at a crossroads, with several unknowns throughout the organization. Taylor and I run through conversations entailing the team’s current situation, the outlook on Mac Jones moving forward, and current Patriots players who give him hope for a turnaround in the future. Plus, Taylor tackles tells on both sides of the ball and how the Bills might choose to play this weekend and, of course, whether he believes head coach Bill Belichick has something up his sleeve to stop Buffalo after digesting film from Weeks 5-6.
1. Heading into the 2023 NFL season, it seemed like a lot of Patriots fans were high on the team’s chances. Refraining from the topic of Mac Jones here: What, exactly, happened to the team — is it one thing or a convoluted situation infecting the entire roster/coaching staff?
I think roster construction is an easy and fair area for criticism. The Patriots haven’t spent a high draft pick on an offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn in 2018, which has resulted in a gaping hole at right tackle since last season. Their attempts to surround Mac Jones with weapons have also failed outside of solid contributors like Hunter Henry, Kendrick Bourne, and a struggling Rhamondre Stevenson.
But with all that said, I think top guards Mike Onwenu and Cole Strange being healthy makes this a much more competitive team. Onwenu missed the entire summer after undergoing ankle surgery, and Strange suffered a knee injury the first week of training camp and didn’t see the field again until just before Week 1. This has forced rookie Atonio Mafi to play or start in every game, sometimes joined at the other guard spot by fellow rookie Sidy Sow. These interior issues have exacerbated the right tackle situation and caused a significant regression in Jones’ pocket presence. Further compounding these mistakes is a lack of receivers who can win quickly or generate big plays consistently. Kendrick Bourne has flashed that kind of potential, but his route running is inconsistent, and last week was the first time in three seasons I’ve seen a coordinator feed him the ball.
The team’s rushing attack is generating some positive momentum with Bill O’Brien calling more downhill concepts that suit his personnel, but there are inconsistencies there, as well. I’ve also found it alarming how infrequently Jones has thrown RPOs, which he thrived on in college and make life easier on a receiver and passer.
So overall, the offensive roster is poorly constructed, but injuries have turned cracks in the Patriots’ armor into gaping holes.
2. Is it fair to say the book’s still out on Mac Jones? Do the majority of fans think it’s impossible properly evaluate him still, or are they ready to move on?
I’d say there are people in both camps. If the Patriots end up with a top-five pick, I’d agree that taking a quarterback is smart, regardless of how Jones plays the rest of this season. He’ll likely be in the final year of his contract (assuming his fifth-year option isn’t picked up) and hasn’t had real competition since Cam Newton his rookie season.
But I think most folks also understand Jones hasn’t been set up to succeed. He’s had a different coordinator and quarterback coach every season of his career, no true #1 receiver, and an offensive line that’s seen countless combinations with him under center. Jones’ decision-making and turnovers have been inexcusable at times...like high school quarterback level bad. But those issues, which started during last season’s dumpster fire, are popping up for the first time in his football career. I’m curious to see how Jones would perform under better circumstances, but there’s no way of knowing if the damage done over the past two seasons will be reversible anytime soon.
3. The injury to rookie CB Christian Gonzalez was such an unfortunate blow. What have you made of Gonzalez’ rookie season and, who else among the current roster gives you hope for the team’s future?
Based on his early contributions, Gonzalez was on pace to be a frontrunner for Defensive Rookie of the Year. He wasn’t perfect, but he was holding his own against some of the league’s best receivers like A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, Tyreek Hill, and Garrett Wilson. Gonzalez’s effortless athleticism was immediately apparent, and he already looked like one of the most poised players at his position.
Behind him, I’d go with safety Kyle Dugger despite his upcoming free-agent status. His physicality, athleticism, versatility, and intelligence make him a glue piece the team won’t want to lose. Defensive tackle Christian Barmore is also having his best season as a run defender, which was a question mark heading into the season as he’d been primarily a pass-rush threat in his career. I’d like to put defensive lineman Keion White and safety/linebacker Marte Mapu in the mix due to their athleticism, but I haven’t seen quite enough from either player on a consistent basis.
4. If you were watching film to game plan ways to stop New England’s offense and attack its defense, what would stand out to you and how would you play chess against both sides?
Frankly, you can wait for the Patriots’ offense to beat itself. That may sound curt, but this team’s most defining trait is shooting itself in the foot with penalties, missed opportunities, and a general lack of cohesiveness. Outside of the improving downhill run game I mentioned earlier, there isn’t much this team does well consistently. If Buffalo is sound fundamentally, they shouldn’t have much trouble keeping New England quiet.
In terms of the defense, the Patriots could be without CB2 Jonathan Jones this week, which would mean Shaun Wade could see significant snaps. He’s a depth player outside and can be picked on. I’d also attack the middle of their defense on early zones when they play zone coverage. Linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley is great at getting to his landmarks, and fellow backer Jahlani Tavai has had three really strong performances, but conflict can make them a tick late and give an offense the upper hand.
5. The DraftKings Sportsbook spread for this game leads one to believe this Sunday’s game will be tightly contested. Do you agree with the line, given both teams’ play the last few weeks — and do you believe Belichick will have something up his sleeve after watching where and how the Bills have struggled at times this season?
The Patriots’ defense has been competitive in spite of its offense, which keeps me from thinking this will be a blowout. But it’s been weeks since the offense showed it could move the ball or score points consistently against a good defense, especially one that can take the ball away. This game could be close for a half, that is if New England doesn’t have one of its signature slow starts, but I don’t see this being within reach for very long.
A huge thanks goes out to Taylor for taking the time to reflect on the New England Patriots’ season through the first six weeks. If you’d like to read my responses to Taylor’s questions about the Buffalo Bills, head over to Pats Pulpit for the article.