Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Passing TDs hard to come by: Cam Newton and the Patriots haven’t thrown a touchdown pass in four straight games, which has them on the cusp of making the type of history teams generally try to avoid.
A fifth straight game without a passing TD would match the second-longest streak in franchise history (1983 and 1988). The franchise record of six games was set in 1972.
Newton, who threw 35 touchdown passes in his MVP season in 2015, has just two this season. But he’s rushed for eight, which ties him for third in the NFL with Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyle Murray and Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry. Only Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (12) and Falcons running back Todd Gurley (nine) have more.
“Touchdowns are touchdowns. A passing touchdown is no different than a running touchdown,” Newton said. “Production as an offense is no different if I’m scoring, or Rex Burkhead is scoring, or Damien Harris is scoring. It doesn’t matter. I think a lot of people look down on the fact that you run touchdowns in. So be it.”
The Patriots are 1-3 over the past four games, with Newton saying he’s still learning and trying to get the best version of himself to be most comfortable.
On the passing touchdowns, Newton added: “I don’t necessarily look deep into it. If given the opportunity, I would love to get more touchdowns, and I could care less if it came through the air or on the ground.”
2. Edelman turning it up: Things can always change in an instant, but I heard some optimism from those close to receiver Julian Edelman with how his knee has responded since he underwent a precautionary standard knee procedure on Oct. 29. That optimism is a result of some recent on-field work, in which Edelman was apparently moving well, but the key will be how the knee responds as he continues to stack days together. The Patriots’ Nov. 22 game at Houston is the earliest Edelman would be eligible to play, and Wednesday — the team’s first practice of the week — would provide more clarity if that is even a realistic possibility.
3. Ravens like to run: It is often said that coach Bill Belichick focuses on taking away what the opposition does best, forcing them to play “left-handed,” and that means loading up against the run on Sunday night. Consider these nuggets from ESPN’s Stats & Information:
They have called a run on 64% of their first-down plays, the second-highest rate in the NFL
They have played with two RBs, two TEs, and one WR — a power-running package — on 17% of their snaps. That is the highest such rate across the league.
They have the highest percentage of plays out of the pistol formation (48%).
One of the themes from Patriots defenders this week was to not take the cheese, as the Ravens often focus on deception, with the highest percentage of plays using motion before or at the snap (72%).
“There’s a lot of misdirection, and they want you to see a lot of things. But when you look at the big picture, it’s really just a simple offense. It’s just a lot of smoke and mirrors,” said safety Adrian Phillips, who leads the Patriots in tackles (53).
Matthew Berry expects Lamar Jackson to be a top-10 play in Week 10 because of his abilities and the matchup with the Patriots’ defense.
4. Scar’s perspective on the season: Retired Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia was a guest on Sirius XM NFL Radio on Veterans Day, with a theme of how his service shaped his approach as a coach. Scarnecchia, who said he hasn’t been watching as much football this year, shared his thoughts on the 2020 season.
“I wouldn’t want to be coaching in this environment for anything. It would be extremely hard to conduct meetings wearing a mask, being on the field the same way, no people in the stands — I think all of that would take a huge toll on a guy like me,” he said. “The other thing along those lines … [people] can say all they want about the OTAs, minicamps and not needing preseason games, but that has really showed itself. You’re seeing it in the injuries, you’re seeing it at times when players were brought in new, like Cam Newton, and weren’t able to have that time to learn the system in its totality and refine his skills within the system. It really is hard. I think it’s a tough environment.”
5. Izzo’s quiet strength: Third-year Patriots tight end Ryan Izzo has been thrust into a tough spot as the team’s No. 1 (and only) option at the position. In a perfect Patriots world, he’d be more like a No. 2 or even 3, but with Matt LaCosse opting out before the season and third-round picks Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene both on injured reserve, Izzo is all the team has for now — reflected in his 79% playing time total. Izzo has recently been playing through an injured hamstring and prior to that had a dental issue that made it difficult for him to eat for multiple weeks. His toughness to be available for the team hasn’t gone unnoticed.
6. Gunner’s job on the line?: Belichick put the kickoff return unit on notice during his weekly interview on sports radio WEEI, which had me wondering if returner Gunner Olszewski might be in jeopardy of losing his spot as the top returner. “We’ve missed a lot of good opportunities on kickoff returns. It’s been a frustrating, really in all eight games,” Belichick said. “It’s been one thing or another, but we just haven’t gotten the production that has been there, the opportunities that have been there.” Of course, it doesn’t always fall solely on the returner, but if Belichick does consider a change, maybe that’s a way to get rookie J.J. Taylor back into the mix after he provided an early-season spark but hasn’t played since Week 3.
7. Hightower void: The trickle-down effect of the Patriots having eight players opt out — a group led by linebacker Dont’a Hightower — is still being felt by the team. One of the notable areas that is the case is with the defender wearing the communication device during games. That used to be Hightower, the ultimate glue guy with extensive knowledge of the system, who would simply relay the play in the huddle after hearing it in his helmet.
But with a depleted linebacker corps this year — a result of opt-outs and free-agent departures — the Patriots ultimately settled on safety Devin McCourty to fill that void in the third week of the season. As part of the on-field process, McCourty said he relays the call from the sideline to the middle linebacker (Ja’Whaun Bentley or Terez Hall), or whoever might be leading the “front” in obvious passing situations (Shilique Calhoun).
“I would say it’s really been us as a unit doing it. I’m just the guy they’re talking to,” McCourty said, highlighting that it’s Bentley, Hall or Calhoun leading the huddle once he gives them the call. “I would say my years of experience has helped us in that situation. It really comes in handy in the two-minute situations of being able to control and do things that way.”
8. Easterby’s influence: Former Patriots character coach/player development Jack Easterby, now serving as Texans vice president of football operations, made national headlines last week when Houston fired highly-regarded vice president of communications Amy Palcic, the lone woman in the NFL to hold that level of position. Texans president Jamey Rootes told the Houston Chronicle in a statement that it was his decision, but the silence of Easterby — who has been given wide-ranging authority to reshape the organization — speaks louder to me. Why? Because behind the scenes in New England, Easterby often stressed to others the importance of integrity, accountability and faith.
9. Did You Know, Part I: In games that the Patriots do not commit a turnover, they are 70-9 since the 2008 season. As Belichick sometimes says, no statistic correlates more to wins and losses than turnovers. The Patriots enter Sunday’s game with a minus-1 turnover differential, tied for 19th in the NFL. The last time the Patriots finished a season with a negative turnover differential was 2005, when they were minus-6.
10. Did You Know, Part II: The Ravens have won 10 straight road games dating to last season. With a win against the Patriots, they would become the first team to win at least 11 straight road games since New England won 14 straight from 2016-2017.