With several big names already ruled out, the Patriots final inactive list had some good news as one key starter returns to the lineup on Sunday.
After missing last week's home-opener against the Ravens due to a knee injury, safety Kyle Dugger is officially active for New England against the Packers this week.
Dugger's return is finally a bit of good injury news for the Patriots, who sorely missed the do-it-all safety in Week 3. His physical presence to play in the box and coverage ability on the backend is a serious boost for the Patriots defense against Aaron Rodgers and company.
Although Dugger's return is great for the Patriots defense, joining Lawrence Guy (shoulder) on the inactive list is starting cornerback Jalen Mills. Mills has been nursing a hamstring injury for a few weeks now and will rest this week in Green Bay. After standing out in training camp, Mills hasn't been as effective in the first three weeks of the season. The hamstring injury likely played a part in that, so it's best for Mills to get right and return to the level he was playing at over the summer.
As we know, New England will turn to backup quarterback Brian Hoyer for the injured Mac Jones (ankle), and wide receiver Jakobi Meyers (knee) will miss his second consecutive game, rounding out the team's inactive players for Week 4.
Without Mills in the Patriots secondary, rookie corner Jack Jones could have an increased role alongside Jonathan Jones and Myles Bryant. To reduce Jones's exposures, the Pats could also lean on their three-safety nickel package featuring Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips, and Dugger with only two cornerbacks. That would likely mean a zone coverage-heavy plan.
As we wrote earlier in the week, the Patriots should feature their top-ranked rushing attack without Jones and healthy run-game personnel. Pats running back duo Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson both rank in the top-15 of Football Outsiders' efficiency metric (DYAR), and the Patriots offensive line is fully healthy for Sunday's tilt.
Although it continues to come into question, New England's wide receiver depth chart will likely look the same as last week. Without Meyers, expect another heavy workload for blocking receiver Lil'Jordan Humphrey with Kendrick Bourne replacing Humphrey on passing downs.
The Patriots are getting the matchup they want with Humphrey; opposing defenses are matching '11' personnel featuring the big-bodied receiver in lighter personnel groupings. As a result, New England is only running into eight-plus defenders in the box on 18% of their rushing plays. Last season, that number was 36% since the Pats offense ran so many times out of heavy groupings (21 or 12 personnel).
Bourne deserves more playing time as one of the team's best route-runners and YAC merchants. But if defenses continue to put five or more defensive backs on the field against three-receiver sets that include Humphrey, the Patriots will take that matchup.
As for the Patriots defensive front, losing veteran run-stopper Lawrence Guy to a shoulder injury will test their depth along the defensive line.
Despite having Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, the Packers run the ball on early downs at a high rate. Green Bay's base scheme is outside zone, complementing that with toss sweeps and an occasional gap scheme, which all builds up to their play-action passing concepts.
Without Guy, expect the Patriots to utilize their more explosive run defenders to fly upfield off the ball. For example, this would be a good week to let Christian Barmore shoot gaps and shut down the outside runs before plays develop for Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon. Playing more four-man lines, as we've seen in the past against the Shanahan tree, wouldn't be a major surprise. And last week, the Pats run defense was at its best with DT Davon Godchaux playing the strong side five-technique outside the tackle.
For the Packers, superstar cornerback Jaire Alexander is inactive due to a groin injury, a break for Brian Hoyer and the Patriots offense.
The short-handed Patriots will kick off against the Packers at 4:25 pm ET in Green Bay.