The Patriots welcome the Baltimore Ravens to Gillette Stadium for Sunday's home-opener, but New England will do so potentially down to key starters.
Patriots wide receiver Jakobi Meyers (knee) and safety Kyle Dugger (knee) are officially questionable for Sunday's game. Both core contributors did not participate in the first two days of the week, but were upgraded to limited for Friday's session, which bodes well for their status on Sunday. Along with Dugger and Meyers, six other Patriots are also questionable for the home-opener: S Adrian Phillips (ribs), CB Jalen Mills (hamstring), DL Davon Godchaux (back), LB Raekwon McMillan (thumb), DB Cody Davis (calf), and S Joshuah Bledsoe (groin).
Over the last two seasons, Meyers has been quarterback Mac Jones's most targeted receiver and go-to pass-catcher on third down. After leading the team in most receiving categories a year ago, Meyers is on pace once again to be the team's leading receiver and currently has a team-high six receptions and five conversions on third down through two games.
If Meyers cannot play against the Ravens this week, New England could rely on their 12 personnel package featuring tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith on early downs. In Week 1, the Pats ran 27 plays out of their two tight end sets but adjusted to three receiver groupings with wide receiver Lil'Jordan Humphrey in place of a tight end in last week's win over the Steelers.
The wrinkle to substitute Henry or Smith for Humphrey led to success rushing the football against Pittsburgh's lighter personnel groupings. Instead of one of the tight ends blocking a linebacker, the Pats had Humphrey blocking a defensive back and got good results. New England ran for 42 yards on 12 carries out of 12 personnel in the opener versus the Dolphins (3.5 average). Last week, they produced 127 rushing yards on 26 attempts with three wide receivers on the field (4.9).
If the Patriots want to stick with what worked, wide receiver Nelson Agholor becomes the top candidate to join DeVante Parker and Humphrey as a base receiver. In obvious passing situations, Meyers's potential absence could open the door for Kendrick Bourne to see more snaps as the "Z" receiver. But we wouldn't expect to see Bourne's role expand into New England's early-down run package. Keep in mind, over 77 percent of Bourne's offensive snaps a year ago were passing plays.
As for Dugger's potential absence on defense, the Pats safety was the centerpiece of their 2020 game plan that slowed down Lamar Jackson on a rainy night in Foxboro two seasons ago. Dugger's early-down role as an overhang defender on the edge helped limit Baltimore's read-option plays and keep Jackson in the pocket on first and second-down passing plays. Then, in man coverage situations, Dugger was the primary coverage defender on Ravens tight end Mark Andrews. The Pats safety allowed just one catch for eight yards against Andrews.
With the Patriots likely leaning on their three-safety nickel and dime packages, newcomer Jabrill Peppers could fill in on Sunday. Peppers made two standout plays as an open-field tackler taking over for Dugger last week and has a similar skill set to play near the line of scrimmage. The Patriots signed the former Giants and Browns safety in free agency to build out their depth at a critical position in Bill Belichick's defense for situations like these, and he's a capable replacement.
Although Peppers can play Dugger's roles in the box and over the slot, one would assume that the Pats will have a different backup plan against Andrews. Fellow safety Adrian Phillips has competed well in man coverage against tight ends in the past, but we could also see corner Jalen Mills take Andrews on third down. The theory here is that the Patriots will play primarily zone coverage, but when they do play man, Mills might draw the assignment on Andrews with Jonathan Jones covering second-year wideout Rashod Bateman. Mills has experience playing at safety alignments and inside the formation, while Andrews often runs slot receiver-style routes.
Dugger is one of New England's best and most impactful players on defense, so playing an explosive offense with a mobile quarterback without the third-year safety is a tough blow.
However, head coach Bill Belichick agreed with the premise that safety is the deepest position group on the Patriots roster this season. If they had an injury to a key contributor on defense, losing one of their core members at safety is an area where they have talented depth.
The Patriots will host the Ravens at Gillette Stadium on Sunday with kickoff at 1 pm ET.