By: Adam Wolpert
Whether it be in New England or in the 31 other cities boasting teams across the NFL, football fans have a real reason to be excited. Following an offseason stretch including free agency, the draft, and the preseason, the wait is over and regular season has officially arrived! Tonight, the Patriots will be hosting the Kansas City Chiefs in what is undoubtedly going to be a wild time at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, complete with pre-game ceremonies to kick off yet another year of NFL football. Quick note: if you have tickets and plan to attend, check out Patriots.com for pre-game details throughout the day, and make sure you're in your seats at 8:00 sharp! To cap it all off, the team plans to unviel their most recent Super Bowl banner, which required space-creating reconstruction at Gillette Stadium this offseason in order to make room for the newest symbol of greatness on display at the home of the evil empire. Much like the four ceremonies which have come before this since the stadium's opening in 2002, there will be musical performances, special guests, fireworks, and a healthy does of pyrotechnics. But here's something new... this year the fans will be graced with light blue rally towels distributed by the fans through Barstool Sports depicting Roger Goodell as a clown. If that's not enough to make you tune in, than this next tidbit will. Goodell is slated to make his first regular season appearance at Gillette Stadium since the conclusion of the Deflate Gate scandal which lasted all too long. Bring on the boos. And booze. With all this said, as we all know by now, it is football first and foremost in New England; all about showing up and doing your job.
While the game is not won on paper but rather on the field, the offseason has been one full of noteworthy moves including the additions of WR Brandin Cooks and CB Stephon Gilmore. When taking into account some other nice pickups like RB's Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead, along with LB David Harris and DT/DE Lawrence Guy, it is not hard to see why this is being regarded as the best team on paper since the 18-1, record breaking season in 2007. However, don't let that fool you. 19-0 would be nice and there's plenty of talk about it (fair enough), but that is not the ultimate goal. Coach Belichick and the Patriots coaching staff does a tremendous amount of work to game-plan for opponents week-to-week and put their players in the best position to win come game time, something which is on full display in the recent film special "Do Your Job 2". With the unpredictability of the season from week-to-week, succeeding in taking the season one game at a time is the ultimate goal. A lot can change in a second, but being ready to counter that change and capitalize on theirs strengths to combat their weaknesses is something that few franchises are able to do better. It is for this reason, as well as great depth at the WR position, that the team will be able to overcome the loss of WR Julian Edelman, who is out for the entirety of the season with a torn ACL. Come tonight, at 8:30 PM, the new-look Patriots will be back in full force, ready to chase trophy #6. So without any further reflection, here are some key things to look for in tonight's matchup.
i.) The Newcomers
As I mentioned above, the Patriots have brought in a number of great additions this offseason, especially on the offensive side of the ball. One of the keys to tonight's matchup, and something that I'll be keeping a close eye on is how these guys perform. For players like WR Phillip Dorsett, who was just acquired from Indianapolis this past week, or DE/LB Cassius Marsh, who was just acquired from Seattle this past week as well, I am not expecting a huge impact out of these guys week one; as great as that'd be. However, for WR Brandin Cooks, who is the most athletically gifted receiver Brady has had at his disposal since Randy Moss, I am hoping to see a big game out of him. Cooks is a great addition to the offense for a number of reasons, which is perfectly analyzed in the video below. To keep it short, I really like the possibilities that his speed creates for the offense not only as a threat as a receiver, but also as a decoy and field stretcher. If he and guys like Hogan and Dorsett can spread the field with their vertical quickness and lateral agility, it should open things up underneath and outside the numbers for Amendola, Mitchell, White, and Lewis. Hell, he may even help create space for (a hopefully healthy) Gronk to do his thing.
Along with Cooks, I'm also curious to see which new RB has the more immediate impact: Mike Gillislee or Rex Burkhead? Both players are strong runners runners in short yardage, each has the ability to run between the tackles, and were ranked the two best running backs in the NFL on calls that resulted in broken plays. While Burkhead averaged 4.6 Y/A on 74 carries after being handed lead-back duties in Cincinnati this past season, he was also effective as a pass catcher railing in 17 of 20 targets for an average of 8.5 Y/R and 9.1 Y/G. While Gillislee was less effective in the passing game, he averaged a stellar 5.7 Y/A in each of the past two seasons when assuming the lead-back role with the Bills. Another encouraging sign is that he maintained that average while his attempts jumped from 47 in 2015 to 101 in 2016. While he won't receive a tremendous workload here, I expect for him to receive the most carries in the group. Burkhead should be a solid addition on offense and special teams as well. Whether or not Burkhead, Gillislee, Lewis, or White gets the start will come down to the game plan each week depending on who we are facing. Tonight, I'm predicting a big game from the RB's against a Kansas City defense that ranked 27th in the league against the run this past season.
ii.) The Pass Rush
While the Patriots undoubtedly got better in the secondary by signing Stephon Gilmore to a lucrative, $65 million dollar deal, they did less to improve their pass rush as one may have expected or hoped. Granted, they liked what the had in 3rd round draft pick DE/LB Derek Rivers, but he's now out for the season after suffering an injury in joint practices with Houston the second week of the preseason. The defensive line lost DE's Chris Long to free agency and Rob Ninkovich to retirement over the offseason, and while both were aging veterans, they played an important role in the unit that finished as the number one scoring defense in the NFL following the conclusion of the 2016 season. Each also played great alongside emerging stud Trey Flowers. I think back to Long's game winning forced fumble on the road against the Jets, as well as the drive-altering hold he drew from Jake Matthews during Super Bowl LI which was also looked at during "Do Your Job Part 2". New additions Lawrence Guy and Cassius Marsh should be solid pickups and a good fit on this team. However Guy has only amassed 6.5 sacks in his entire career, and only had 1.5 last season as opposed to Long's 4. He does however bring more size to the defense and potentially improves the run-stop which was at times an area of strength with Malcolm Brown and Alan Branch. Guy is a natural DT who can provide some pressure as a 3-4 DE, but he will be more effective in 4-3 sets. Marsh, on the other hand, is more of a hybrid defensive player than solely a LB or DE. He can play middle, left or right outside, and can line up at either DE spot. He is also very athletic and effective on special teams. I'm not quite sure where we will line him up, but he's willing to play wherever coach sees fit, so he should get a chance to shine on the edge at some point. Overall, I think DE Deatrich Wise, a 4th round selection out of Arkansas, has the highest chance of making an impact on the pass rush bearing that he is healthy. He is a two-gapping power rusher with a lack of quickness, but he possesses great length and strength. He's certainly not a fit in a 4-3, but he will excel in 3-4 sets. He doesn't have the same pure athleticism as Trey Flowers, but let's hope that this guy turns out to be another 4th round steal at DE. Below are some of his highlights from college. As far as this game goes, these guys may struggle in pressuring Alex Smith, a mobile QB whose offensive line ranked 9th best in the league this past year.
iii.) Who's returning kickoffs and punts?
With Julian Edelman lost for the season to a torn ACL, it appears that Danny Amendola will have a far greater role in the offense which should alleviate or do away with his special teams duties all-together. The recent addition of former-Colt Phillip Dorsett is an interesting one because he's somebody who possesses the physical tools to serve this role, but has never really been given the responsibility of doing so on a regular basis. The WR has great vertical quickness, and natural speed which would serve him well as a returner, but his field vision and ability to keep the ball secure will be key if they really see him assuming this role. My choice for primary KR right now would be Dion Lewis who's proven capable of doing so already and saw himself slotted into that role during the back-half of last season, as well as the playoffs. He only returned two kicks out of the end zone during the regular season however, and Dorsett has not returned a kick since his rookie season. Right now Amendola is the safest bet as a PR, but I don't want to see him going out of his way to create a big return. I'm curious to see how this plays out against the Chiefs because special teams is an extremely understated aspect of the game. At the end of the day, a fumbled return could change the whole outcome of or momentum during a game so it's important they have a clear understanding of what they're going with here.
iv.) Protecting Tom
The Patriots offensive line saw a return to functionality with the return of Dante Scarnecchia last season, and Dave Deguglielmo's unit, which suffered tremendously from terrible technique, was a distant memory. Mainstaple LT Nate Solder, second-year RG Shaq Mason, second-year C David Andrews, rookie LG Joe Thuney, and RT reclamation-project Marcus Cannon all had great regular seasons and really only struggled badly in the first half of Super Bowl LI against the Falcons unhinged defensive front. Cannon ranked among the top T's in the league which was extremely impressive considering how much he struggled throughout 2015, before finally getting eating alive by Von Miller in the 2015 AFCCG. If this unit can play as strong as it did last season and end up in the top-10 as far as offensive line rankings go, then TB12 should have a great amount of time to make big plays happen and adjust to the defense.
QB's, Secondary, and Predictions
Before revealing my projection, I want to make it clear that QB play on offense and Secondary play on defense will always play a big role in the outcome of a game. But at this point, I think we all know that Tom Brady will show up to play and he is 100% ready to go. I think that the passing game will befit from the new weapons it was gifted over the offseason, and I also think we should establish the run against one of the worst-ranked run defense in the league last season, that didn't do a lot to improve aside from picking up LB Reggie Ragland, who is most likely going to be inactive. I think that Gillislee will ultimately receive the most carries out of the bunch, but the other guys should get a chance to depending on the down at hand. For 60 minute, the Pats roll while the Chiefs tire out around the third quarter, where we finally take the cover off the top of their defense. The defense will have to be at it's best in order to create pressure against Alex Smith, but I expect the secondary to help out with that to some extent, providing a solid mix of man and zone coverages, or disguised man-zone combos. Lastly, the defense might have it's hands full against rookie RB Kareem Hunt, who's absolutely NFL ready and will excel as a perfect fit in their zone-running, RB friendly offense. Some guys who will be key to this game on the defensive side include DT Malcolm Brown, DE Trey Flowers, and OLB/DE Kyle Van Noy, all of whom played very well against the run last season. I'm also going to peg Van Noy as a breakout candidate: he had a great season coming over from Detroit as a presumed role player, and improved each week eventually leading to his starting in the playoffs as a OLB/DE.
Patriots win, 38-16
Image: (USA Today)