Phil Perry

Patriots-Commanders preview: These matchups will decide Pats' fate

Here's how the Patriots can avoid an unsettling loss to the lowly Commanders.

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Put yourself in Robert Kraft's custom sneakers for a moment. 

Aren't you hoping to see on Sunday which of your players are desperate to be part of the solution here? Don't you want to get a good idea, starting now, of which members of the game-day roster are worthy of some of the dough you're expected to spend this offseason? Wouldn't that evaluation process begin now for you? And, yes, wouldn't you take it upon yourself to do some of the evaluating -- in your own way -- if you're not quite sure who is going to be making the calls on your roster this offseason?

Aren't you watching closely to see how fans in the stadium react, just in case the Patriots aren't able to beat up on a clearly-tanking franchise? A beautiful fall Sunday at Gillette Stadium can't be spoiled by the lowly Commanders, right? If it is, how will your customers react?

Kraft has to know his roster is lacking. He has to know injuries have altered the course of the Patriots season in some respects. But that doesn't mean a loss to a team that just traded away two of its best players -- Washington ownership seems to be content to look past the present in order to stockpile future assets -- wouldn't stick in his craw well after the 2023 campaign is through.

This is the kind of game, a 1 o'clock kickoff at home against a lowly NFC opponent, that his team used to dominate. Instead, this one looks like a fairly even matchup.

Kraft will surely be watching closely. What he sees -- is it a rerun of an inspired Week 8 performance against Buffalo or something closer to what he saw last week in Miami? -- is anyone's guess.

Let's dig into some numbers to get a better feel for it...

Matchup to win the first half

Mac Jones vs. Commanders secondary

If Jones is going to replicate the performance he posted the last time he was at Gillette Stadium two weeks ago, this would be the time. The Patriots will be without receiver Kendrick Bourne, and left tackle Trent Brown is banged up. But the Commanders have one of the worst pass defenses in football. 

They're 22nd in the league in third-down success rate. They're 30th in EPA per dropback. They're 30th in yards per pass attempt allowed. And they just traded away their two top pass-rushers in Chase Young and Montez Sweat. Jones should be able to move the chains and sustain drives early in this one.

Matchup that may surprise you

James Smith-Williams vs. Patriots offensive line

The aforementioned Brown injury is a big one. He's clearly hobbled, having missed two practices this week. And the Patriots just called Conor McDermott up off the practice squad.

Whoever is protecting Jones' edges on Sunday, they'll face a backup-turned-starter in Smith-Williams who is no slouch. He has 10 pressures this season, and his pass-rush win rate (12.5) is actually not all that dissimilar -- though earned in a smaller sample -- to Sweat's (13.0), according to Pro Football Focus.

Smith-Williams was well-known coming out of N.C. State for his absurd physical transformation during his college days, leaving the Wolfpack looking like a young Whitney Mercilus. The one-time Prototypical Patriot and two-year robotic-animation intern at IBM just may short-circuit a drive or two for the Patriots. 

Matchup that will bring you joy

Pop Douglas vs. Pop Douglas' conditioning

In the last three weeks, the Patriots have used motion on more occasions than every team but six. Many of those motions were handled by Bourne. But even before Bourne was hurt, the Patriots showed an affinity for putting undersized rookie wideout Demario "Pop" Douglas in motion before the snap and at the snap. In the first two drives alone, he motioned at the snap four times.

He was asked after the game if all those extra steps -- some at full speed -- were taxing.

"A little bit," he acknowledged. "But you practice it a lot so you start to get the wind."

Getting Douglas moving horizontally may help the Patriots be the best version of themselves offensively. 

His ability to take end-around handoffs has to be accounted for by defenses, which could force the Commanders this week to make difficult choices in real time with the ball being put in play. And when the Patriots have thrown after calling for motion, they've been efficient. They have the seventh-highest yards-per-attempt figure with motion since Week 6 (8.2), per Sports Info Solutions.

Without motion, in the last three weeks, the Patriots are last in the NFL in yards per attempt (4.7). 

Matchup that will take years off your life

Patriots run game vs. Commanders defensive front

As porous as the Commanders pass defense has been, they've been solid against the run. They rank 12th in EPA allowed and success rate allowed on opposing running plays this season. They've been strong, specifically, against exactly the types of downhill runs the Patriots generally favor.

When facing counter, trap, power, duo and wham plays, per SIS, the Commanders rank 10th in the NFL in yards per attempt allowed (3.7).

Why? Those plays typically find the teeth of the Washington defense, led by Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne -- first-rounders in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

Matchup that will determine the outcome

Patriots pass rush vs. Commanders offensive line

The Patriots need to pressure Sam Howell into mistakes if they're going to win this game. The Commanders line isn't all that stout. And Howell has made more than his share of mistakes when under duress. 

Washington is 21st in pass-blocking efficiency this season as a unit, according to PFF. They've given up 104 total pressures (two fewer than New England) in eight games, putting them at sixth in the NFL.

Howell, meanwhile, is PFF's No. 28 quarterback in terms of his grade under pressure this season. The 2022 fifth-rounder has the eighth-worst turnover-worthy-play percentage (5.8) in the league when under pressure. He's 26th in the catchable-pass-percentage metric from SIS when pressured.

He has the 26th quarterback rating under pressure, the second-highest sack percentage (31.3) and the fifth-worst interception percentage (4.9) with defenders bothering him. 

If Christian Barmore, Deatrich Wise and potentially Josh Uche (who last played sparingly against the Raiders in Week 6) can speed up Washington's second-year passer, that could lead to a game-changing play for Bill Belichick, Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo's defense.

Prediction: Commanders 26, Patriots 20

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