The Patriots snuck out of University of Phoenix Stadium by a narrow 23-21 margin. Garoppolo made no mistakes, and the defense did just enough to prevent Carson Palmer from stealing this win. Make no mistake, Jimmy Garoppolo is not the second coming of Tom Brady. I will however, give him credit for taking down a very talented Arizona Cardinals team in a manner that reminds me of the Patriots of old.
The early 2000s New England teams were characterized by a hawkish secondary that complimented a trio of elite linebackers, and a decent front four. Ty Law and Rodney Harrison patrolled the secondary, often delivering brutal hits to the few receivers who ventured across the middle, while Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson fueled the pass rush and run defense. Richard Seymour and Ted Washington anchored the front four, refusing to get trampled by the likes of big bruising backs like Jeromme Bettis, but were admittedly not in the same league as the pash rushers that characterize the league nowadays.
Fast forward to the defense the Patriots feature this season – Malcolm Butler, Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung highlight a solid secondary. Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins are the heart of this defense, operating as versatile pass rushers who can also drop into coverage to vary the scheme. The front four is relatively weak, however, with Malcom Brown and a slimmed down Anthony Johnson doing their best to contain opposing backs. These undersized defensive tackles may have trouble down the line against power oriented running teams like the Denver Broncos. For now, they will just have to suffice.
While the weapons this offense has are of a similar caliber to that of the old teams, it is simply unrealistic to think this makeshift offensive line, coupled with a “rookie” Garoppolo can win shootouts against other quality offenses. Instead, Belichick is going to have to dig up his old game plans from when Brady was still finding his groove.
With the next three games against the Miami Dolphins, Houston Texans, and Buffalo Bills, it is unlikely Garoppolo is going to have much time against these three teams that tout notoriously strong defensive lines.
The Patriots are going to need more out of their defense than simply holding teams to field goals. Duron Harmon had an opportunity to snag an easy pick that may have been returned for points, and Justin Coleman actually did have an interception, but failed to get his feet in bounds. Jamie Collins had a rather quiet game, but one can expect him to generate plenty of fumbles throughout the season. The Patriots are unlikely to win another game against a quality team with Garoppolo at the helm if they cannot win the turnover battle.
The last parallel I want to highlight between this current squad and the early 2000s team is the strength of the special teams. Stephen Gostkowski was lights out, going three for three from 53 yards and in, while his counterpart, Chandler Catanzaro missed a potential game-winner from 47 yards in the final minute. The new rule for touchbacks, which moves the ball to the 25 yard line, has spawned some interesting tactics from Coach Belichick. He opted to have Gostkowski pooch kick the ball down to the five yard line, and count on his special teams aces, Matthew Slater and Cyrus Jones, to make the tackle. On the flipside, Catanzaro booted the ball through the end zone each time, ensuring the Patriots had good starting position at the 25 for each drive.