Adjustments New England Patriots Must Make Following Week 1 Loss
The New England Patriots were supposed to ring in the start of the 2017 season with a bang on Thursday. There was a celebration to parade the franchise's latest Super Bowl win, the team was playing a home game and there were tons of new additions to show off.
Things didn't go as planned, though, and the Patriots ended up losing 42-27.
Does this mean it's time to panic if you're a Patriots fan? No. Does it mean New England isn't still a Super Bowl contender? Of course not. What it means is that the Kansas City Chiefs are a very good football team—they did win 12 games last season, after all—that had a terrific game.
It also means the Patriots have some wrinkles to iron out. With new pieces such as Stephon Gilmore, Mike Gillislee, Lawrence Guy, Dwayne Allen and Rex Burkhead on the team, this isn't entirely unexpected. A lot of these players, and a lot of starters in general, didn't spend much time together in the preseason.
We've just become so used to seeing the Patriots well-prepared that last Thursday's result was a bit of a shock.
With the right adjustments, New England can get right back to being a legit title contender. Let's take a look at the adjustments the team needs to make heading into Week 2.
Get the Secondary on the Same Page
The addition of cornerback Stephon Gilmore was expected to make New England's secondary better. Against the Chiefs, who aren't known for a pass-happy offense, it should have been effective.
Part of the problem against the Chiefs may have been a lack of respect for quarterback Alex Smith and the passing game (he finished with 368 yards and four touchdowns). Part of the problem was definitely miscommunication in the defensive backfield.
A perfect example could be seen during Tyreek Hill's 75-yard touchdown reception. Gilmore and safety Devin McCourty were clearly not on the same page during the play. The former played shallow, expecting safety help, allowing the Chiefs wide receiver to get far behind him.
This is an issue New England desperately needs to get fixed. Next on the slate is Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints on the road. While Smith isn't known for slinging the football around the field, Brees is. Saints head coach Sean Payton is as good as anyone in the league at identifying weaknesses in a secondary.
The Patriots cannot afford their biggest weakness to be miscommunication in Week 2.
Find a Way to Create More of a Pass Rush
Yet another reason Smith was essentially able to have his way with the Patriots defense is the fact New England couldn't consistently put pressure on him.
Yes, the Chiefs QB was sacked three times—twice by 2016 team sack-leader Trey Flowers and once by rookie Deatrich Wise—but the Patriots rarely blitzed and failed to consistently create pressure.
As a result, Smith completed 28 of his pass attempts and didn't throw an interception.
This isn't a new issue for New England. Last season, the team only produced 34 sacks, tied for 16th in the league. They're going to have to figure out how to generate more pressure next week against Brees and Co.
Perhaps defensive coordinator Matt Patricia should utilize some more exotic looks and bring extra rushers on occasion. Perhaps the team needs to look for outside help to boost the pass rush. This may be the best option if Dont'a Hightower, who suffered an MCL sprain in Week 1, is forced to miss time.
Use Dwayne Allen More
New England has to figure out how to get tight end Dwayne Allen involved in the offense. He was held without a catch against the Chiefs, and that's an issue.
Kansas City did a great job of limiting star tight end Rob Gronkowski—two catches for 33 yards—and that hurt the Patriots offense. Having a reliable pass-catching end on the other side of the field might have helped.
With Danny Amendola now injured, it's even more crucial New England get Allen into the action. They're already without Julian Edelman for the season. That's bad enough.
"You can’t really replace Julian. The way he plays the game, the way he goes out there, the way he loves football is just not replaceable," Gronkowski said, per Mike Reiss of ESPN.com.
New England recently put Malcolm Mitchell on injured reserve and are without Matthew Slater. This means the Patriots are down to Cooks, Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett at wideout. Dorsett has only been with the team for a week.
New England may have to rely on more two-tight end sets against the Saints out of necessity.
Stretch the Field More on Offense
Even though the Patriots appear to be running out of receivers, they need to figure out how to stretch the field more in the passing game. Sure, Cooks had one reception for 54 yards, but otherwise New England struggled to push the ball downfield.
Normally, the Patriots thrive by exploiting underneath matchups. Brady has made a career of slicing defenses with throws to running backs, tight ends and receivers crossing over the middle. The Chiefs made sure these underneath throws were unavailable for the majority of Thursday night's contest.
Cooks can obviously stretch the field, but he and Brady are likely still getting familiar with one another. Chris Hogan is also a talented vertical receiver—he averaged 17.9 yards per catch last season—but he saw just one catch for eight yards in Week 1.
New England needs to try running Hogan down the field on the outside more in Week 2. The Patriots should also try utilizing Gronkowski and Allen on deeper routes. In addition, putting speedy running backs such as Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead in the slot could help boost the receiving corps.
If Brady isn't able to push the ball down the field against the Saints, New Orleans is going to do what the Chiefs did and focus on stonewalling short routes and the running game.
Utilize Brandon Bolden Better
Speaking of the run game, the Patriots are still in the process of figuring out how to replace LeGarrette Blount. Mike Gillislee did some nice things against the Chiefs—he did have three touchdowns—but he often struggled to gain tough yards.
So did the rest of New England's backfield. As a team, the Patriots averaged just 3.5 yards per carry.
The Patriots need to consider utilizing Branden Bolden. He's typically active on game days anyway because of his special teams value. Why New England refused to use the bruising 220-pound back situationally against Kansas City is a mystery. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry in the preseason and has averaged 4.2 yards per carry in his career.
Bolden didn't log a carry. Wideout Hogan received three.
The Saints have an emerging front seven—one that includes defensive linemen such as Alex Okafor, Sheldon Rankins and Cameron Jordan. While they may prove easier to run on than the Chiefs were, they're not just going to roll out the carpet for New England's backs.
Using Bolden as a runner more could help keep the ground game rolling. It might also allow guys such as Burkhead, Lewis and White more opportunities to play at the receiver position.
Utilize a Bigger Defensive Front
One of the big problems the Patriots had against the Chiefs was an inability to stop running backs. Not only did Kansas City rack up 185 yards rushing, but backs Kareem Hunt and Charcandrick West combined for nearly 170 yards receiving.
The reason why the Patriots struggled to contain Kansas City's backs may have been because of the smaller defense New England put on the field.
Tom Curran of Comcast Sportsnet New England recently explained during an appearance with The Dan Patrick Show:
"Kansas City really just tried to exploit matchups, I think with the skinnier guys they had up there. Not only did they have a whole crapload of defensive backs, they also had some skinny guys up front."
If the Patriots think Payton won't figure out how to exploit their defense in a similar situation, they're fooling themselves. Utilizing a heftier defensive front in situations that call for it is something the team needs to do. Bringing back bigger linebacker Jonathan Freeny (255 pounds) may help. With Hightower sidelined, it may be necessary.
If the Patriots stick too much with a lighter defense, the trio of Adrian Peterson, Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara are going to batter it.