The Patriots offense will be without leading receiver Jakobi Meyers and safety Kyle Dugger for Sunday's home-opener against quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium.
Meyers and Dugger will both miss Sunday's game due to knee injuries that caused them to miss two practices and participate in Friday's session in a limited capacity. The Pats starters highlight New England's six inactives with the complete list including LB Raekwon McMillan, DL Sam Roberts, CB Shaun Wade, and rookie QB Bailey Zappe.
Meyers has become quarterback Mac Jones's go-to target. The fourth-year pro is on pace to lead the team in most receiving categories for the second consecutive season and has a team-high six receptions on third down through two games.
New England could pivot back to their two-tight end packages featuring Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith to replace Meyers this week. However, the 12 personnel grouping struggled in a Week 1 loss to the Dolphins. The Pats ran 26 plays out of their two tight end sets but averaged only 3.5 yards per carry (42 yards on 12 attempts) and 3.6 yards per pass.
In last week's victory over the Steelers, the Patriots adjusted to more 11 personnel with three wide receivers on the field. Part of that game-plan wrinkle was substituting wide receiver Lil'Jordan Humphrey for a tight end, leading to more rushing success. Instead of one of the tight ends blocking a linebacker, the Pats had Humphrey blocking a defensive back and averaged 4.9 rushing yards and 7.2 passing yards per attempt vs. the Steelers with three wide receivers and one tight end on the field.
If the Patriots want to continue playing out of three-receiver sets, wide receiver Nelson Agholor is a top candidate to join DeVante Parker and Humphrey as an early-down receiver. In obvious passing situations, Kendrick Bourne will likely replace Humphrey. Although fans might want to see more of Bourne than Humphrey, the team views Bourne as a passing downs player. Last season, 77 percent of Bourne's snaps came in the passing game, while he has only been on the field for one running play so far this season. Bourne's role will expand without Meyers but expect most first down reps to go to Humphrey or the two tight ends.
Along with Meyers, the Patriots are missing a key piece defensively with do-it-all safety Kyle Dugger (knee) sitting out Sunday's game. Dugger was nursing the injury all week, sitting out practice on Wednesday and Thursday before testing the knee ailment on Friday in a limited capacity. 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.
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 add depth to a critical position in Bill Belichick's defense.
Although Peppers can play Dugger's role in the box and as an overhang defender in the slot, one would assume that the Pats will rely on safety Adrian Phillips or even cornerback Jalen Mills to cover Ravens tight end Mark Andrews on Sunday.
The expectation is that the Patriots will play primarily zone coverage, but Mills might draw the assignment on Andrews on third down when they play man-to-man. Mills has experience playing from safety alignments and inside the formation, while Andrews runs slot receiver-style routes often.
With Dugger inactive, second-year safety Joshuah Bledsoe will make his NFL debut on Sunday. Bledsoe was inactive for the first two games of the season. Third-round pick Marcus Jones will also make his NFL debut vs. Baltimore.
Lastly, the Patriots will also be without linebacker Raekwon McMillan (thumb) on Sunday. New England elevated special-teamer Harvey Langi from the practice squad to partially fill McMillan's role on Saturday, while newcomer Mack Wilson will look to build off a strong performance last week with a significant role defensively on Sunday.
Wilson deflected a Mitchell Trubisky pass to teammate Jalen Mills for an interception last week, an athletic play that head coach Bill Belichick highlighted earlier in the week. With Lamar Jackson on the other side, Wilson's play speed at linebacker could factor into how the Pats plan to limit Jackson on the ground this week.
The Patriots and Ravens will kick off at Gillette Stadium at 1 pm ET on Sunday.