Heading into an ideally-placed bye week following Sunday's win in Buffalo that improved the Patriots to 7-1 at the midpoint of the season, Bill Belichick has a lot to be happy about. His team certainly has plenty of well-developed strengths to build upon.
While he will clearly emphasize the need for his team to improve in a variety of areas in the coming weeks and months – noting that seven wins isn't enough to win anything even if it does have New England as the clear team to beat in the AFC – Belichick has watched many aspects of his team contribute to success this fall.
But, areas that likely will be targeted for improvement include offensive line play – particularly pass protection – as well as a pass defense that's a work in progress in terms of getting the coverage and the rush to work in concert.
Within the pass defense an area that's apparently a competition in progress is the No. 2 cornerback position opposite Pro Bowler Malcolm Butler. Logan Ryan has held the job for more than a year, but over the last two weeks Week 1 trade addition Eric Rowe has earned the starting nod. And second year player Justin Coleman has been in the mix as well.
Sunday afternoon in Buffalo all three players saw plenty of playing time, and in his Monday morning, day-after-game conference call with the New England media Belichick noted that the rotation at the spot could continue moving forward based on the reps that guys earn and deserve each week.
That was a major takeaway from Belichick's Halloween morning chat with the media, one that ended with the coach declaring that, "may there be plenty of leftovers" in terms of candy once all the trick or treaters have received their allotted portions on what he hoped would be a "Happy Halloween."
Here are a few of the highlights from Belichick's morning conference call as he prepared to balance costume-and-candy fun with bye-week work in New England.
1. Cornerback rotation product of competition:While Ryan had been the starter opposite Butler for the last year-plus, the free-agent-to-be has been more a part of a rotation in recent weeks with Rowe and Coleman. Coleman was a solid performer as an undrafted rookie late last season, while Rowe has apparently gotten up to speed since joining the back end from Philadelphia in early September. The way Belichick sees it, all of the players are worthy of seeing action at this point, at least until their individual play creates an obvious competitive divide and potentially more defined roles.
"I think all those players have practiced well, have played well, deserve to play," Belichick explained. "So they all had an opportunity to play (against Buffalo). They have all had an opportunity to play on multiple occasions during the course of the season and their performance will dictate future playing time and future opportunities. Some of that is related to certain defensive groupings and packages. And I would say some of it isn't. Some of it just the rotation. And some of it is, once there is enough evidence in and there is a performance component to it where one exceeds another, then that changes the decision-making pattern a little bit. But if we have several guys that are playing well, playing competitively, then I don't think there is any reason to just play one and not another one. That we can play more than one."
2. Tom Brady has "worked hard" on deep balls: Tom Brady is averaging nearly 10 yards per attempt this season. He's completing big plays to a variety of targets all over the field. He nailed a pretty bomb to Chris Hogan down the left sideline for a 53-yard score in Buffalo, dropping it in his receiver's hands almost like he were the garbage can of the famed "bucket drill" on the training camp practice fields. While TB12 has never been known as a great thrower of the deep ball, Belichick thinks the veteran quarterback's work in the area and the opportunities presented this year have paid off.
"I think Tom's done a good job on that. He's worked hard. Our receivers have done a good job, too," Belichick said. "We've gotten behind the defense, in position where those throws are a little bit…are a little higher percentage, I would say. So it's really a combination of the quarterback and the receiver and the work on both ends with the timing. Tom's done a good job.
"Chris did a really good job of getting behind [Stephon] Gilmore on the touchdown and stacking him. That was not as hard of a throw but a really good route. Chris put himself in position there for that to be a big play.
"I think we've hit more of those, certainly on a higher percentage than we have at some other points. Hopefully that will continue."
3. Hogan's projection coming to fruition: Hogan's role and production in the Patriots offense continues to evolve in his first season in New England. On Sunday he hit his former Bills team for 91 yards, including the big-play score. In the past, Hogan played well for Buffalo against the Patriots. But according to Belichick, it was much more than simply the versatile veteran receiver's production against New England that had the team interested in bringing him in to work in Foxborough full time.
"I think probably 90 percent of the process is all the same," Belichick said of evaluating NFL free agents. "Whether it's a player that we've played against or haven't played against there is certainly enough, if the player has played there are enough examples of competition in the NFL where you can see how he's going to do against a high level of competition and through enough a games you'll see a variety of schemes and matchups that he'll have to face to have some idea of a projection of how it would be, how you would anticipate him doing for you.
"Then that other 10 percent, if it's against your team, then you know the player that you have that he's matched up against and you can evaluate that matchup a little bit better than watching him match up against somebody else because you have a better knowledge of your individual player. So there is some benefit to that.
"But I would say in Chris' case his situation was a little bit unusual because he didn't have a lot of play time offensively and then some of that came when Buffalo had injuries at the position. I think Buffalo felt that they had a lot of depth at the receive position and that affected a little bit of Chris' play time. Then when there were injuries he also played more but he also played very well in the kicking game, which gave us an evaluation of not only him in the kicking game but also some skills that you could see on special teams that maybe weren't as evident on offense, blocking for example.
"But I'd say playing against a guy gives you a little bit more of an evaluation because you can see him against one of your players. And that individual matchup. But I think there's, in balance, a lot more to it than just that. There is the whole body of work you want to evaluate."