After dismantling the Denver Broncos on Sunday night, the New England Patriots extended their winning streak to five games while setting themselves up for a shot at the No. 1 seed. New England’s resurgence has been even more impressive considering how poorly the team looked in the first four games.
Coverage breakdowns, poor pass protection and a lack of execution made the defending champions look like mere mortals, but most of those issues have been fixed by Bill Belichick and his coaching staff in the last month and a half. A defense that was on pace to be one of the worst of all time has suddenly clamped down and is allowing just 13.4 points per game during the winning streak.
On offense, the Patriots weathered the injury bug and now boast one of the deepest skill position groups in the NFL. From Rob Gronkowski to Brandin Cooks to Martellus Bennett, the number of weapons available to Tom Brady is enviable. But how exactly have the Patriots been able to make such a drastic turnaround in a relatively short span? Here are three keys to New England’s five-game winning streak.
Improved offensive line play
When you have a 40-year-old quarterback, the emphasis has to be on keeping him healthy. Early in the season, it appeared the Patriots’ offensive line forgot that memo. With his offensive line struggling, Brady was sacked an astounding 13 times in just four games. Needless to say, that was not part of the TB12 formula.
Since their Week 4 loss to Carolina, the offensive line has stepped up in a major way. Though right tackle Marcus Cannon has been hobbled by a nagging ankle injury, the rest of the unit has stayed healthy and executed at a higher level. Left tackle Nate Solder looked anything like a player worthy of a contract extension early on, but the 2011 first-round pick has slowly regained the form that made him a borderline Pro Bowler for the last few years.
Ironically, New England’s two tackles have not been the key to their recent success. Rather, it has been the consistently solid effort from the young interior trio of Joe Thuney, David Andrews and Shaq Mason. All three have been brought up through the system and have grown into a formidable force.
Andrews is one of Pro Football Focus’ top-graded centers, and Mason has continued to stand out as a run blocker while improving tremendously as a pass protector. Thuney’s penalty problems from his rookie season have essentially evaporated, and he has been reliable at left guard. If Dante Scarnecchia continues to get this unit to elevate its game each week, the Patriots and Brady will be in prime position to capture their sixth Lombardi Trophy in February.
Fixing secondary breakdowns
Before the season began, the Patriots seemed to have one of the best secondaries on paper. Of course, that did not prove to be the case in the first four weeks. From Stephon Gilmore struggling with simple assignments to Malcolm Butler failing to make plays on the ball to Devin McCourty appearing out of position, the secondary was an absolute disaster in the first quarter of the season.
Whether it was coincidence or not, Gilmore’s absence resulted in far less big plays allowed. Former Detroit Lions special teamer Johnson Bademosi endeared himself to Patriot Nation by stepping up in a starting role and playing competitively in coverage. Second-year cornerback and special teams dynamo Jonathan Jones also excelled in a more prominent role and has been praised for his ability to make plays on the ball.
As a result, a pass defense that got shredded by Alex Smith, Deshaun Watson and Cam Newton has been able to limit big plays due to improved communication and technique. After surrendering 319 passing yards to Tampa Bay and 334 to the New York Jets, the defense has held its last three opponents to an average of just 212 passing yards per game.
Though Butler got chewed up by Emmanuel Sanders in Sunday’s victory, Gilmore returned to the lineup and did a solid job in limiting Demaryius Thomas to just five catches for 44 yards and one touchdown. Throw in Patrick Chung’s interception and some timely pass breakups by Jones and Gilmore and it is easy to see why the Patriots have rattled off five consecutive victories thanks to the secondary playing up to its immense talent level.
Emergence of Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead
While the continued dominance by Brady and Gronkowski cannot be understated, the offense has transformed in recent weeks thanks to the emergence of Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead. During the first four weeks, the Patriots made a concerted effort to involve Mike Gillislee and James White, but the versatility and big-play ability of the Lewis-Burkhead duo have proven to be more effective.
That big-play ability was on full display in Sunday’s win in Denver, as Lewis ran back a kickoff 103 yards for a momentum-grabbing score. Besides providing a major boost in the return game, the 5-foot-8, 195-pounder has actually made his biggest impact as the team’s top between-the-tackles runner. After totaling just 19 carries in the team’s first five games, Lewis has carried the ball 53 times in the last four. His tackle-breaking skills and toughness stand out, especially for a player of his size.
Perhaps the most underrated acquisition this offseason, Burkhead has proven to be the perfect fit for the Patriots. A true do-it-all back, the fifth-year pro overcame a rib injury and has quickly become a valuable weapon in this diverse offense. In three games since returning from injury, Burkhead has carried the ball 20 times for 82 yards and chipped in 11 receptions for 106 yards and a touchdown.
Though his numbers will never jump off the page, Burkhead’s ability to line up as a traditional running back and split out as a receiver makes him a tough cover for opposing defenses. More importantly, Burkhead’s presence on the field makes the Patriots unpredictable. And if he keeps making impact plays like his blocked punt, Burkhead will watch his role grow as the Patriots push to extend their winning streak.
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