FOXBOROUGH – (Special to Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchnage) – Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots (6-2) exit their bye week with some interesting, formidable challenges on the horizon.
New England will play five of its next six games on the road. That begins with this Sunday night’s trip to Denver to take on the stumbling Broncos, followed by a Week 11 battle with the disappointing Oakland Raiders, that game in Mexico City.
With consecutive distant road games, both of which will be played at a high altitude, New England will leave this Friday for Denver and then remain in Colorado next week to prepare for the Oakland game.
It’s an unusual situation, but one Belichick is leaving for his travel staff while he and his players hope to extend the team’s winning streak to five games after a bye week spent “evenly divided” looking back at some self-scouting of the first half of the season while also preparing for the road ahead.
“We have people in our organization that have been working on it, are working on it,” Belichick said of the two-game road trip. “I mean, it’s like going to Mexico. You just don’t jump on the plane and go to Mexico. There’s a lot of planning that needs to go into it. Logistically, it’s a very challenging trip. So yeah, there are a lot of things like that. But that’s really not where our focus is right now. We’ll get to that when we get to that.”
The focus is on Denver. It’s a place where New England has had its issues over the years. And even with the Broncos having lost four in a row, including Sunday’s 51-23 beatdown in Philadelphia, the Patriots know heading to Denver to take on a defense that still ranks No. 2 in the league is challenge enough.
“When you’re out there in Denver it’s a different deal certainly for us,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia admitted. “We’ve always had some tough games out there. They’ve played us extremely well when you’re at home and you’ve got to travel out to Denver. For our situation that’s a tough place to play — just the environment and the atmosphere.
“It’s what it is when it’s on the road, but we deal with it week in week out. But I think they have a great fan base out there that really gets behind the team, and those guys play well at home in those situations against us. That’s the difficult part.”
Patricia’s defense gets ready for a Broncos offense that struggled with both Trevor Siemian and, on Sunday, Brock Osweiler under center.
New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who was the head coach in Denver for two seasons, has to deal with a Broncos defense that once again has the ability to control games.
“From our perspective, the defense is the most challenging part,” McDaniels said, downplaying outside factors such as the altitude. “That’s an exceptional unit that’s been exceptional for a number of years. We know that that’s who we’re playing against. You play against the opponent, not the crowd or the weather or anything like that.”
–Linebacker Shea McClellin began practicing on Oct. 17, the first step in the process of returning from injured reserve. Having missed most of training camp and the first eight games of the year to a head injury, McClellin is eligible to come off IR for this week’s trip to Denver.
Though Belichick has yet to commit to McClellin joining the 53-man roster, the veteran would certainly help the team’s depth in the front seven, especially since the season-ending pectoral injury to linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
“Like he always does, Shea works hard. Shea’s a smart football player. He has a lot of position flexibility both athletically and mentally with his experience,” Belichick said. “We’ll see how it all plays out, see how it all works. He works hard and can do a lot of different things on defense and in the kicking game, so we’ll see how it all goes.”
–Quarterback Brian Hoyer was a interesting side story to New England’s shocking deadline deal to trade backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to the 49ers in exchange for a second-round pick. As San Francisco’s former starter and backup, Hoyer was cut by the 49ers after the deal and swiftly signed a three-year contract to return to New England, where he opened his NFL career in 2009 as an undrafted rookie out of Michigan State. He spent three seasons with the Patriots before moving on to different teams, including some time as a starter in multiple stops, with Pittsburgh, Arizona, Cleveland, Chicago, Houston and the 49ers.
After 55 career NFL games and 37 starts, Hoyer is now back where it all began trying to get up to speed as quickly as possible as Brady’s backup for the second half of the season.
“Well we’ve had him. We know what he can do,” Belichick said in his first comments since re-signing Hoyer. “He’s been productive. He’s been in a lot of big games and big situations. We’ll try to get him ready to go.”
But just because Hoyer was starting games as recently as this season in San Francisco, doesn’t mean he’s immediately ready as the Patriots’ insurance policy behind Tom Brady.
“He hasn’t played for us,” Belichick emphasized. “I think we have a lot of work to do, but he’ll work hard at it and we’ll see where we’re at.”
–Quarterback Tom Brady is clearly the present and future of the passing game in New England. But prior to last week’s trade of Garoppolo, some wondered if there was a passing of the torch on the horizon in Foxborough.
So, it probably should come as no surprise that another team might at least ask about the possibility of trading for Brady, right? Apparently, that’s exactly what first-year 49ers general manager John Lynch did last spring after initially being told Garoppolo, the player San Francisco finally acquired at the Oct. 31 trade deadline, was not available.
“So Lynch calls back,” Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer reported Nov. 5. “‘Garoppolo’s off limits. Will you trade us Tom Brady?’ Belichick said, ‘What did you just ask me?’ (Lynch said), ‘I’m asking would you trade us Tom Brady? You said Garoppolo’s off limits.’ He goes, ‘Did you just ask me if you’d trade Tom Brady … Did you just ask me if I’d trade the greatest quarterback of all time?’
“And (Lynch) said, ‘So is that a no?'”
Can’t fault a guy for trying.
NOTES: LB Dont’a Hightower (pectoral) curiously remains on the 53-man roster despite undergoing surgery to repair the torn muscle, a procedure expected to sideline the Pro Bowler until 2018. … CB Stephon Gilmore missed the three games prior to the bye week with a concussion. On the first day of work for Sunday night’s trip to Denver the veteran said he should be good to go for a return to action against the Broncos.
MIDSEASON REPORT CARD
–PASSING OFFENSE: A — With 40-year-old Tom Brady throwing 16 touchdown passes and just two picks for a 106.5 passer rating, New England has the NFL’s No. 1 passing offense through nine weeks of action. It hasn’t been perfect. The offensive line has allowed 21 sacks, on pace for the most of Brady’s career. But the addition of WR Brandin Cooks (33 catches, 563 yards and three scores) and return of a healthy TE Rob Gronkowski (34-509-5) as well as pass-catching RB James White’s team-best 43 catches have combined to overcome the preseason loss of Julian Edelman (torn ACL).
–RUSHING OFFENSE: C-minus – Restricted free-agent addition Mike Gillislee has been a major disappointment with a 3.6-yard average on his 98 attempts, failing to fill the void of LeGarrette Blount’s departure. Dion Lewis led the Patriots’ 16th-ranked rush attack in attempts in three straight games leading into the bye, with mixed results, though he does have a 4.7-yard average on his 58 attempts. New England averaged below 3.8 yards an attempt in four of its first eight games, leaving head coach Bill Belichick declaring that the team needs more production from its ground game.
–PASS DEFENSE: D-minus — New England has had the 32nd-ranked pass defense throughout the first half of the season thanks to a horrendous concoction of poor coverage, horrible communication, non-existent pass rush and big plays allowed. A secondary that sports a $65 million addition in CB Stephon Gilmore and three former Pro Bowlers in Gilmore, S Devin McCourty and CB Malcolm Butler has greatly underperformed, although the back end did show some signs of improvement heading into the bye week. New England had just 16 sacks at the bye, ranking 26th in sacks per pass play.
–RUSH DEFENSE: C-minus — A run defense that was No. 3 in the NFL a year ago struggled up the middle and on the edges to open 2017, ranked 24th in the league. Five of the Patriots’ first eight opponents topped 120 yards on the ground and New England held just two foes below 4.5 yards per carry as a team. Injuries and a lack of depth on both the line and at linebacker have left the Patriots giving up yards consistently on the ground.
–SPECIAL TEAMS: B — The strength of the kicking game has been the coverage units led by Pro Bowler Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner’s team-best seven tackles. That’s especially true on kickoffs, where Stephen Gostkowski has mastered high kicks to the goal line for the third-best average drive start off kickoffs in the league. Gostkowski has been solid in his placekicking, hitting 20 of 23 field goals and 20 of 21 PATs. Punter Ryan Allen has not been as good, ranking near the bottom of the league in both gross (30th, 43.2) and net average (28th, 39.0). Dion Lewis has been unremarkable with a 24.2 average on kickoff returns, while Danny Amendola has given an occasional boost on punt returns with an 11.2-yard average and 40-yard long.
–COACHING: B-minus — Though there have been a few examples of overthinking — including questionable lineup and scheme decisions on opening night — head coach Bill Belichick and his staff have been solid enough overall for the 6-2 mark at the bye despite a number of key injuries and underachieving talent. Coordinator Josh McDaniels has seen his offense evolve into more of a big-play passing attack without Edelman, while defensive coordinator Matt Patricia is trying his best to overcome a lack of talent and depth in the front seven on defense. The veteran staff, like the team itself, has room for improvement