JACKSONVILLE – Jaguars.com senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2018 regular season will speak with a writer or media member covering the Jaguars' opponent.
Up this week:
ESPN New England Patriots writer Mike Reiss on the Patriots as they enter Sunday's Week 2 game against the Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville …
Question: The Patriots are obviously always good, but how do they see themselves? Do they like where they are entering Week 2?
Answer: They do, but always in the context of no one's a finished product after Week 1 of the NFL season. They did some good things in their season-opening victory over the Texans, but they're always going to focus on the things they can do better. You go onto the Patriots' official website – Patriots.com – and you see a video from inside the locker room after the victory over the Houston Texans showing [Head Coach] Bill Belichick addressing the players and saying, "Three turnovers in the game? Not going to be able to do that going forward if we expect to win consistently." That's a good thing to highlight in terms of how they're never going to say they're totally satisfied because there are always things they can do better. And that's part of what makes them so great.
Q: You have been around a lot of great Patriots teams the last two decades. Does this look to you like a great Patriots team?
A: It looks to me like it has the potential to be a great Patriots team. I see a lot of the same traits in terms of quality players and quality locker-room guys that will give them a chance to get to where they want to go. I would start there: it's a good locker room with good leadership. The years where you might say, "This just seems different; there's something that's maybe not the same as the majority of the years …" it has been that locker room vibe. Maybe 2009 is a good example where it seemed different that year. That's where it starts and the second place I would go is [quarterback] Tom Brady. At 41, you're always going to ask the question, "Does he look the same?" Because if he starts to drop off … that's the key position. I haven't seen anything from him from training camp and the first game of the preseason and the first game of the regular season that indicates any significant drop off – other than maybe a short stretch in camp when he had a sore back and that turned out to be absolutely nothing.
Q: This is obviously a big game for Jaguars fans, though the team is approaching it as another regular-season game. The Patriots have played in many such games. How do they approach it?
A: You're going to hear great respect for the Jaguars [from the Patriots this week]. I can almost hear what Bill Belichick is going to say before he says it: "Hey, all we have to do is go back and turn on the AFC Championship Game [last January] … down 'X' amount of points in the second half, in our own stadium? No one has more respect than us for the Jaguars." That's the way they will approach it. That's the way they always have done it. I could go back to almost every season through this whole run they have had under Belichick and I could highlight different games that fall into this category: the upstart team on the other side using the Patriots as a measuring stick, or a "revenge game." You can go back to every year: how the Patriots approached that, what they said leading up to it. They're not going to place a higher value on one game over another because of that. I would be shocked if Bill Belichick isn't in front of the players at the start of the week saying, "You know what type of environment we're going into here." It reminds me of a little of 2015. It was the second game of the year, so it's the same type of setup we have now: At Buffalo, Rex Ryan was their head coach. ESPN had a television set in Buffalo and made a big deal of it. In Buffalo that was considered a huge week, a huge game: "We're going to see how we stack up." The Patriots just sort of treated it like, "Hey, we're going to avoid that hubbub; we're going in and it's just all business." They took care of business in a big way. Whether they do it this week we'll see. But I would think it's the same approach.
Q: Aside from Brady, how is this team offensively? How strong?
A: Start at receiver, because that's been the spot that has really given them a lot of trouble in terms of personnel. You're without Julian Edelman for the first four games and they're very thin at receiver. Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett are No. 1 and 2 at receiver with Cordarrelle Patterson at No. 3. They just signed Corey Coleman and Bennie Fowler. They're throwing a lot of stuff against the wall: Kenny Britt, Malcolm Mitchell, Eric Decker, Jordan Matthews …. nothing sticks. They're making it work with arguably as light a wide-receiver corps as they ever have had under Belichick – maybe 2006 being the exception when Reche Caldwell was the No. 1. That's the spot you look at and say, "Eh, could that come back and get them?" But then you look at the positive: offensive line. They lose left tackle Nate Solder to a huge deal with the [New York] Giants … Trent Brown has stepped in and has done a nice job through the preseason of filling that left-tackle void. You want to see more than one game, but it looks like the pass protection has been good throughout – including Week 1 against a tough Texans defense.
A: The thing that stood out in the first game defensively: pass rush. They had 12 quarterback hits and three sacks on [Texans quarterback] Deshaun Watson. They were all over him. That has not been their M.O. over the years. They have had games like that, but if you go back to the Super Bowl … they struggled to get a hand on [Philadelphia Eagles quarterback] Nick Foles – to pressure him, to disrupt him. That's the thing from the one game that stands out. And Eric Rowe has stepped in at cornerback for [current Tennessee Titans and former Patriots cornerback] Malcolm Butler; that was a big change for them. He played well in the opener and I think the team feels good about that. You also have a rookie linebacker – Ja'Whaun Bentley, a fifth-round selection from Purdue – who got a lot of run in the first game. They're really high on him; he makes them a little bit faster than they have been in the past. Their big free-agent signing – [defensive end] Adrian Clayborn – has contributed to the pass rush.
Q: There have been times over the years that the Patriots get beat – and times when they do get handled. Is there a thread that runs through those games?
A: I always go to this, and I think [Jaguars Senior Vice President of Football Operations] Tom Coughlin would like this stat: When the Patriots have a positive turnover differential in the Bill Belichick era (2000-2018), they're 143-15. When they're negative, they're 37-42. When it's even, they're 35-17. You can always twist stats to fit your narrative, but if I'm a head coach and I'm looking to drill a point home to my team … those are probably the strongest numbers I can present to you.
Q: If there's a big-picture theme to this Patriots season – something you're watching for – what would it be?
A: The point that I would highlight would be just the stars: Brady at 41, [tight end Rob] Gronkowski in his ninth year … They could use an influx of younger talent. They've had a little bit of a tough run with some of their recent top draft picks, so they're really relying on these guys to keep doing what they have done. You always sort of wonder when it's going to tail off, then you get to the season opener and you see Rob Gronkowski make a couple of plays and you just shake your head and say, "Same as it ever was." Can they just keep doing what they're doing in Belichick's 19th year, Brady's 19th year and Gronkowski's ninth year?