On Sunday Night, the 1-1 New England Patriots travel to Michigan and Ford Field to take on the 0-2 Detroit Lions. This will also mark the first matchup between Head Coach Bill Belichick and one of his long-time assistants Matt Patricia, who is now calling the shots for the Lions. Patricia joined the Lions after fourteen seasons working under Belichick in New England following earning his masters degree from the University of Massachusetts while coaching the defensive line at DIII Amherst College. Patricia was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2012 and held that position until departing for the head coaching gig in Detroit. Last we saw of Matt Patricia in New England his defense was getting torched by Nick Foles in the Super Bowl, and through the first two weeks not much has changed as Detroit has coughed up over 30 points against in both games to begin their season. Hard to imagine them holding Tom Brady in check on primetime television.
Yesterday we heard the news break on a new book coming out from Ian O’ Connor that details the making of the greatest football coach of all time. One big takeaway was from this past off-season where Tom Brady considered a “divorce” from Belichick after all of the drama and turmoil that ensued at the conclusion of last season and up to the Super Bowl. I’m not going to dive too far into this, seeing as its a game preview, but I do believe there’s some truth that Brady was frustrated with how he was treated in house specifically from Bill, but there was no way he was going anywhere after he all but sent Jimmy G out of town himself. Brady wasn’t going to retire, but just wanted some time to un-wind and get away, which is why he missed off-season workouts. However, once he showed up for training camp, that was it. All of this drama and “hype” by the media came to an end as he showed up ready to play, committed to win and play for Coach Belichick chasing a sixth Lombardi.
Before I jump right in to this week, I can’t just gloss over the loss last week in Jacksonville. It was tough to watch. In the heat, the Patriots were out-classed on all three phases of the game. Blake Bortles torched them, they couldn’t get anything going on offense, and it looked like Doug Marrone and Tom Coughlin up above had them out-coached. Last week, I was way off with my pick. I underestimated the Jags without Fournette and the heat (97 degrees at kick-off) definitely played a major factor. Through his career, Brady always generally struggles in the heat, as do most Northeast QB’s who have to go play down in Florida during the summer. It’s brutal. I’m not going to overreact to one loss, that’s not what I do. The Patriots weren’t going undefeated and generally speaking, they are good for one September loss that looks a little like this. It’s where the coaching takes over, and Bill instills his message building off all that went wrong on Sunday. I expect the Patriots to do just that on Sunday night, and not to get too far ahead of myself, but after Sunday they draw two home matchups against the Miami Dolphins and the Indianapolis Colts on a short-week for Thursday Night Football. 4-1.
Lions offense vs. Patriots defense
On Sunday night, we could certainly be in store for a shoot-out. Matthew Stafford is a much more talented Quarterback than Blake Bortles, I think everyone can agree on that. The Lions also have some major weapons that the New England defenders will be tasked with holding in check. Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Kenny Golladay, Theo Riddick out of the back-field with old friend LeGarrette Blount also toting the rock on offense for Jim Bob Cooter. These backs slip out and catch passes, and will put the Pats defense to the test. Rookie Kerryon Johnson has looked good so far through two games doing just that, along with receiving back Riddick. Stephon Gillmore is one of the lone defensive player’s who has had a good showing in both weeks, so I am confident in him holding whichever receiver he is covering in check, that will most likely be Marvin Jones. What I am worried about is Tate exploiting them from the slot or Golladay being a matchup nightmare for a guy like Eric Rowe. Rowe was destroyed by the Jags wideouts last week and was benched twice, without much other help at the position outside of Jason McCourty, who appears to have lost a step, New England will have its handful with all those weapons for the Detroit passing game.
Stafford, unlike Bortles and Watson from the first two games, isn’t going to beat them with his legs. He is a pure pocket passer, meaning they can unleash the pass rushers and really get after him. Although the Lions offensive line is average at best, the Patriots could still struggle to get to the passer if Trey Flowers is out on Sunday night. Flowers is still in the concussion protocol and did not practice on Wednesday, it remains to be seen if he will play, but if he can’t that could seriously impact their ability to get after Stafford. I need to see more out of the linebackers from the Patriots on Sunday night. They looked rough last week and weren’t that much better in the season opener. Dont’a Hightower has looked slow and out of position through the first two weeks, Kyle Van Noy has been exposed at times and Ja’whaun Bentley has looked like a rookie. I want to see a big game from those three specifically on Sunday night and hopefully B-Flo dials up some unique blitzes to pressure Stafford.
Patriots offense vs. Lions defense
Did you really think you were going to get through this entire preview without a mention of newly acquired WR Josh Gordon? While I don’t expect him to play a major role early on as he learns the very complicated New England offense, I do overall like the move. It’s exactly the type of move we’ve seen Bill Belichick do during his tenure. Bring in a guy at the lowest of lows for pennies on the dollar, and either convert him back into a play-maker or simply just cut him and move on. Low-risk, high-reward. Bill even added a clause that they get a 7th rounder back if he’s not active for 10 games. Very smart, oh and Gordon is making less than a million dollars this season and next. Talk about value for a player with that kind of ability. The off-the-field issues should concern you as his long-storied issues are a major red flag, but the fact he was reinstated and looked clean with the Browns should, at least in part, help to alleviate those concerns. They have also put him in the locker right beside Tom Brady, as the two will work closely together through the remainder of the season. Gordon is explosive and a weapon of a caliber that Brady has not had at receiver since Randy Moss. Temper expectations early on though, as even if he plays these first few weeks, I’m not expecting a whole lot of snaps or receptions. I don’t even think he will be active on Sunday night after just practicing for the first time on Wednesday and the lingering hamstring concern. I still like the move for later in the season and the playoffs, so defenses can’t just blanket Gronk in coverage and get away with man-to-man everywhere else.
Back to the matter at hand, the Lions defense. Matt Patricia took over a unit that needed a lot of help, it’s why they brought in a defensive-minded head coach after all. That side was the issue, and the offense stood status quo with Stafford and Cooter remaining on as OC. Detroit legitimately has two impact defensive players for New England to key on, Darius Slay and Ezekiel Ansah. Game plan is rather simple, double Ansah off the edge and throw at everyone except Slay. That’s why if Gordon plays, it’s simply as a decoy to open up Gronkowski and Chris Hogan. Outside of those two there’s really only a couple of “solid” players that are on that side of the ball with most of the unit just “other guys” like former Patriots Marquis Flowers and Ricky Jean Francois both seeing a significant amount of snaps.
The Lions have allowed the fourth-highest touchdown rate to opposing passers this season with Sam Darnold & Jimmy Garoppolo respectively able to operate with ease thus far in 2018, and I expect nothing less from Tom Brady in his return to Michigan. I’m expecting a big game from either James White or Rex Burkehead on Sunday. As I mentioned, the Lions are very weak overall on defense, especially at the linebacker spot. Burkehead specifically can gash them in the run game to wear them down and split out and make an impact out of the slot. After a rough week two, Burkehead would be someone I might lean towards if I were the type of guy that plays daily fantasy (perhaps I am one that frequents in that realm).
Did you know that Bill Belichick’s former assistants are a combined 8-13 against the tutor in head-to-head matchups? Remove Al Groh from the equation and his two wins in 2000, and the number is 6-13 between Josh McDaniels, Bill O’ Brien, Eric Mangini, Romeo Crennel, Jim Schwartz and that Nick Saban guy. Hard pressed to see Patricia joining the win column with the current team he has constructed, home game or not.
The Lions offense put up 27 last week against the 49ers defense and that’s a number I can see them very easily getting to again. Three touchdowns and a couple field goals. Pats defense makes a few key stops, but more importantly holds a very explosive offense in check, to the best of their abilities. The issue for Detroit is that despite the points and yards allowed, they have yet to face an offense to the caliber of Tom Brady and the Patriots. I don’t care that Patricia worked alongside Josh and Brady for years and he may know their tendencies like the back of his hand, problem for Patricia is he just doesn’t have the talent on that side of the ball to execute. Brady is going to pick apart the defense, and not make mistakes like Darnold and Jimmy did, while throwing for at least a trio of touchdowns. Five total touchdowns and a two field goals is what I am predicting from New England. Shake off that poor performance in North Florida and stomp a mud-hole in the Lions on national television.
Score: Patriots 41, Lions 27
Follow Frank Pimentel on Twitter: @FrankBostonTank