Patriots vs. Giants: Full New England Game Preview
Including this Sunday's game, the New England Patriots will have entered three of the past five against the New York Giants with an undefeated record. Of course, Pats fans won't want to relive most contests against Big Blue from the past eight years, as this week's game is an opportunity to earn a small measure of redemption against one of the thorniest nemeses of the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era.
With the reliability of the presidential election cycle, the Giants are again the lead dogs to win the flawed NFC East. Currently sitting at 5-4 with a half-game lead over the Philadelphia Eagles, New York has been a highly volatile team from week to week. On a weekly basis, the Giants seem to alternate between shootouts and defensive slugfests, between looking like serious contenders and postseason pretenders, often within the same game.
Nonetheless, New York presents some very real matchup issues, especially for a Patriots squad that has become increasingly shorthanded in its post-bye stretch. With Dion Lewis now down and the offensive line losing members faster than an Agatha Christie novel, the depth New England prides itself on possessing is being stretched further than anyone would like at this stage of the season.
Traveling to MetLife Stadium should be one of the Patriots' biggest tests of their final eight games. Read on for analysis of the key matchups and game factors surrounding New England's Week 10 contest.
Week 9 Results and Recap
This week's NFC East foe figures to present a tougher challenge than the one the Patriots faced last Sunday. New England pressed the gas pedal down hard early, scoring 14 points while controlling the ball for almost the entirety of the game's first 10 minutes and never really felt threatened in a breezy 27-10 win over Washington.
Bill Belichick dipped into his bag of special teams chicanery, executing a surprise onside kick following the Pats' opening-drive touchdown. Though Julian Edelman would later fumble on the drive, the Pats were able to move the ball throughout the day, largely because of a season-best 129 rushing yards from LeGarrette Blount. The total was Blount's second-highest in a Patriots uniform, and his 29 carries represented a career-high on a day where the Pats sought to control time of possession.
The Pats also delivered their most authoritative defensive showing of the season, holding Washington to below 200 yards from scrimmage before a junk-time touchdown drive at the end of the fourth quarter.
Chandler Jones pushed his league-leading sack total up to 9.5, while Malcolm Butler shut down speed demon DeSean Jackson in the receiver's return to the lineup. Additionally, Jonathan Freeny delivered an underrated three-down showing while replacing Jamie Collins, who was scratched with an illness.
Washington is hardly the type of measuring stick the championship-or-bust Patriots will compare themselves to, and Lewis' season-ending ACL injury was the biggest takeaway from this game. However, while the injury bug continues to bite relentlessly, New England has sustained its high level of performance in spite of its rapidly thinning roster depth.
News and Notes
James White the Top Lewis Replacement
Bill Belichick has always kept people guessing in terms of backfield usage, but offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels might have at least hinted at the team's plans for replacing the dynamic Dion Lewis. According to CSNNE's Tom E. Curran, McDaniels suggested that White's improvements, particularly in pass protection, could earn him the lion's share of the passing-back snaps:
James is a very consistent guy. He comes to work. He's got a great attitude and approach, is always prepared to go in and fulfill any of the roles that we have for our backs. He's a dependable guy. He can handle a lot of different assignments, and then when we've needed him to play this season, he's certainly been a guy who has done a decent job in blitz pickup. He's caught the football well out of the backfield, and then he's made yards with it when he's had it in his hands.
It's probably not possible for White to replicate the level of play Lewis exhibited over seven-plus games this season. Lewis tallied 7.3 yards per touch, most among the 45 running backs who have accumulated at least 80 touches this season, per Pro-Football-Reference.com. Moreover, according to Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson, Lewis was on pace to easily break PFF's Elusive Rating all-time mark, a stat that focuses on missed tackles and yards after contact:
Created the Elusive Rating as a rough 0-100 scale. Previous best mark over a season was 106.9. Dion Lewis finished at 165.2.— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) November 9, 2015
We'll have more on White shortly, but it's safe to say the Pats aren't necessarily expecting him to set new records. However, given his tantalizing tools and a year-and-a-half in the system, it's not unreasonable to assume White can assume the versatile role with the consistency New England demands.
Vereen Talks About Reunion
Shane Vereen had his ups and downs throughout his four-year tenure in Foxborough, but the shifty receiving back certainly ended on a high note with his 11-catch, 77-yard performance in Super Bowl XLIX. Now set to face New England again, Vereen admitted during a conference call with the media that going up against his old employers is not simply another game:
"There’s been times when I miss the guys and so I call them and text them, but I still feel like I made the right decision for myself, for my family, and at the end of the day, it’s a business and you have to do what’s smart for you."
Kline Signs Extension
After a much-beleaguered 2014 season in which he struggled over four starts, Josh Kline has been among the Patriots' most improved players in 2015. The Pats rewarded Kline's leap with a two-year, $4.9 million extension this week, and as ESPN Insider Field Yates relayed, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels praised the veteran's versatility in explaining the extension:
Josh has given us consistent play. He's played at both guard spots this year, so he's had to be in tandem with a lot of different people, certainly the center, David Andrews, but also both tackles, or all the tackle combinations that he's played alongside. He's an intelligent guy. He's tough. He plays very hard, and he always gives us everything he has, so he's a guy who's been in our system, he's learned how to play in our offense, and he's a valuable piece to what we do.
Kline has played more snaps than any Patriots guard this season, and he has become an every-down player with the injuries to Shaq Mason, Tre' Jackson and Ryan Wendell in recent weeks. According to Pro Football Focus, Kline ranks 11th among all guards in pass-blocking efficiency, having surrendered just 10 total pressures over 317 pass-blocking snaps.
Mason and Jackson are still the likely future of the position, given that both fourth-round rookies have flashed well as immediate starters. However, considering how thin the interior offensive line was throughout the 2014 season, Kline's jump in performance has allowed the Pats to lock in a steady starter or swing backup at a reasonable price.
Latest Injury News
|Marcus Cannon||Toe||DNP||Victor Cruz||Calf||DNP|
|Tre' Jackson||Knee||DNP||Larry Donnell||Neck||DNP|
|Sebastian Vollmer||Concussion||DNP||Justin Pugh||Illness||DNP|
|Jamie Collins||Illness||DNP||Geoff Schwartz||Ankle||DNP|
|Shaq Mason||Knee||Limited||J.T. Thomas||Ankle||DNP|
|Jabaal Sheard||Ankle||Limited||Uani Unga||Neck||DNP|
|Keshawn Martin||Hamstring||Limited||Prince Amukamara||Pec||Limited|
|Duron Harmon||Knee||Limited||Leon McFadden||Groin||Limited|
Even with Lewis and Ryan Wendell going on injured reserve over the past week, the Patriots injury report has again managed to expand. Per usual, the greatest concern lands on the offensive line, where the makeshift combination that finished last week's game against Washington might need to start this week.
It's ominous that tackles Marcus Cannon and Sebastian Vollmer continue to not practice, which would likely leave Cameron Fleming (who played tackle for the first time in his pro career last week) and Bryan Stork as the starting bookends. Jackson may be able to provide the interior some reinforcement soon, but for now, Mason and Josh Kline will likely play wire to wire if they can avoid the line of fire.
Duran Harmon and Justin Coleman are the other new additions to the injury report this week, but neither seems to have suffered anything particularly catastrophic. In a rare piece of good injury news, Jabaal Sheard has begun practicing after missing the past three games, and his return could provide Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich some much-needed breathers.
The Giants continue to be without Cruz and Donnell, leaving Dwayne Harris and Will Tye in outsized roles at slot receiver and tight end, respectively. Tom Brady figures to experience plenty of success, but the matchups could be particularly juicy for the Pats offense if Prince Amukamara, New York's No. 2 corner, misses his fifth straight game with a partially torn pectoral.
Injury report info via Patriots.com.
Malcolm Butler vs. Odell Beckham Jr.
The Patriots surely won't leave Butler alone against one of the NFL's most dynamic threats, as Beckham demands a double-team on every snap. In fact, it's unclear if this matchup will even come to fruition—Belichick may very well have Butler cover Reuben Randle, while Logan Ryan and Devin McCourty combine to bracket Beckham from snap to snap.
However, Butler's length and superior ball skills might be a better fit to combat Beckham, who possesses arguably the best hands and high-pointing catch ability of any wide receiver in the league. Beckham hasn't matched the historic pace he set during his rookie campaign, but the sophomore receiver is still on pace for 1,367 yards and 12 touchdowns on 105 receptions, hardly anything to sneeze at for an encore.
Expect the Pats to particularly laser in on Beckham in the red zone, where he's garnered 13 targets, eight more than the next closest Giants receiver. Apart from Antonio Brown back in Week 1, this Sunday will likely represent Butler's toughest matchup of the season.
Patriots Left Tackle vs. Jason Pierre-Paul
At this rate, Belichick might need to dust off his pads from his days as the Wesleyan University center and line up to protect Tom Brady's blindside. The Patriots were down to their fourth left tackle of the season on Sunday, with second-year pro Cameron Fleming playing the position for the first time in his life.
That's clearly a suboptimal situation, but it's one the Pats may have to live with depending on the statuses of Cannon and Vollmer. Fleming fared well against a relatively anonymous Washington front seven on Sunday, but he could face a huge step up on the spectrum of athleticism in Jason Pierre-Paul. Making his debut after a tumultuous offseason, JPP played 47 out of 64 possible snaps and recorded an impressive six quarterback pressures, per Pro Football Focus.
Pierre-Paul may not have the conditioning to reassume his familiar three-down role against the Patriots, but even with a severely damaged club hand, he was New York's most disruptive defender against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. As such, expect the Patriots to place an extra emphasis on chipping and double-teaming Pierre-Paul, especially given the dearth of complementary rushers on the Giants defense.
Julian Edelman vs. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
The Patriots' diminutive receiving corps makes for an interesting contrast against New York's bigger secondary, and Rodgers-Cromartie (6'2", 193 lbs) is clearly the G-Men's best cover corner. With three picks and a touchdown, DRC has continued to assert himself as one of the more dangerous ball-hawking corners in the league.
However, assuming Edelman lines up across from him on the majority of snaps, the Pats' top wide receiver might be the type of matchup capable of exploiting Rodgers-Cromartie. Edelman often has success against bigger corners because of his superior agility and change-of-direction ability, which manifested itself against Stephon Gilmore and Vontae Davis earlier this season.
If the Patriots offensive line remains in shambles, expect lots of quick timing routes to Edelman to place the burden on the receivers to pick up yardage rather than asking the linemen to protect. Rob Gronkowski should be a bigger factor than he was against Washington, but Edelman is a strong candidate to receive double-digit targets for the first time since Week 6.
Patriots X-Factor of the Week: James White
With Lewis out, it's likely that the second-year pro White will finally get his chance to shine for the Patriots. White seemed to have the inside track on the passing-back role against Travaris Cadet for much of training camp, but Lewis' sudden emergence in the preseason put the sophomore running back on the back burner this season.
Brandon Bolden entered the game when Lewis went down against Washington, but that's likely because White was a healthy scratch, with New England going extremely heavy in the secondary. White has received some sporadic work over four games this season, totaling 67 yards on 14 touches thus far in 2015. During the preseason, White totaled 164 yards from scrimmage on 34 touches, doing much of his best work through the air.
In that sense, White at least possesses the same skill set as Lewis, who was essentially a glorified receiver. White is likely a downgrade in pass protection in comparison to the veteran Lewis, but if he has a strong grasp of the system, he should be able to afford the Patriots the same mismatches against linebackers in space which Lewis created.
For what it's worth, the Giants currently rank 17th in pass defense against running backs, based on Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. The fourth-rounder White has been blocked on the depth chart for the duration of his career, but now seems like the right time to take the bubble wrap off the Wisconsin product.
Giants X-Factor of the Week: Landon Collins
The first pick of the second round in this year's draft, Collins has proved invaluable to a Giants safety corps that suffered a mind-boggling spate of injuries during the preseason. All told, New York currently has four safeties on injured reserve and has relied heavily on veteran camp signees Brandon Meriweather and Craig Dahl.
Collins will have his work cut out for him in coverage, assuming he draws the primary assignment on Rob Gronkowski. Coming off a game in which he garnered just four catches for 47 yards on five targets (all season lows), Gronkowski would seemingly be primed for a much more prominent role in New England's offensive game plan.
New York may very well commit the majority of its back-seven resources to stopping Gronk, but Brady has repeatedly proved capable of beating defenses with his receivers enjoying one-on-one matchups instead. Collins will need to be at his best in reading keys and gaining enough depth on his drops to prevent the big-chunk gains on seam routes to Gronkowski, a core staple of New England's passing game.
Prediction: Patriots 35, Giants 25
Despite their mediocre record, the Giants possess the ceiling to pull off another upset of the Patriots. New York isn't constructed in the same fashion as the 2007 or 2011 championship rosters, but the combination of big-play ability in the passing game and a defense that averages 2.3 takeaways per game (third in the league) gives the Giants a fighting chance.
New York would probably prefer not to engage in a shootout with the Patriots, as it did in its 52-49 loss to New Orleans two weeks ago. A Giants win would likely entail multiple turnovers from New England and better red-zone efficiency from the Big Blue offense. New York currently ranks 24th in red-zone touchdown percentage, per TeamRankings.com, but Josh Brown field goals aren't likely to catalyze the upset.
Pass protection should be a familiar concern for the Patriots against New York. Even against strong pass rushes, the offensive line has always been able to shut down the defensive pressure in the second half, as evidenced by the games against the Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets. The passing game should thrive with good protection, but is that still a realistic likelihood if the Pats need to roll out the same unit that finished the Washington game?
For now, New England deserves the benefit of the doubt until a defense actually proves capable of harassing Tom Brady for 60 minutes. Although the Giants have been one of the rare teams to pull that feat off multiple times, the guess here is that the Patriots do just enough to stave off another Eli Manning-led upset bid.