Patriots at Redskins thumbs up, thumbs down: Dont’a Hightower, RBs lead road to victory

Andy Hart
October 06, 2019 - 4:29 pm

The undefeated Patriots traveled to Washington to take on the winless Redskins Sunday afternoon for what should have been an easy day of work for Bill Belichick’s team.

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But thanks to poor Patriots tackling on a 65-yard end-around touchdown by undrafted rookie receiver Steven Sims Jr., the home team jumped out to the 7-0 advantage and led 7-6 after a quarter of play, even with Tom Brady completing 12 of 16 throws for 154 yards and a score in the first 15 minutes of action.

New England found itself in a dogfight into the early econd half with a Washington team supposedly set to fire coach Jay Gruden and led by Colt McCoy making his first start of the season.

Ugly as it was on offense at times early, mostly on the offensive line, the Patriots led 12-7 at halftime thanks in part to a pair of Mike Nugent field goals and closed things out to pull away for the 33-7 victory.

Before turning to the short-week preparation for Thursday night’s game against the Giants at Gillette Stadium, here are the personnel highs and lows from the win in Washington, New England’s fifth of the season.

Thumbs up

Dont’a Hightower – After missing last Sunday’s win in Buffalo to a shoulder injury, the veteran linebacker returned for an impact day leading the impressive New England defense in Washington. Hightower had a run stuff for a loss and pressure on first series on defense that was a taste of an active afternoon to come. By halftime Hightower had a game-high six tackles, including a sack and four tackles for a loss. Hightower finished with eight tackles, 1.5 sacks, two QB hits and the four tackles for a loss. He also just missed a pick-6 interception that hit him right in the hands. Hightower is one of many Patriots playing elite football on defense.

Third down defense – There is a lot to like about everything the Patriots defense has done through the first five weeks, including diverse success Sunday in Washington. But nothing is more impressive than the way the unit has played on third down. New England was allowing opponents to convert third downs at a 19.2-percent clip in the first four games. Washington converted on just one of its 11 (9 percent) third down chances on Sunday, giving Brady and the offense the extra chances it needed to control the game. The New England defense has now held the opposition to less than 20 percent conversions in three of the last four games, including one conversion or fewer two of the last three weeks.

Brandon Bolden/Sony Michel/James White – With depth and talent issues at both receiver and tight end, New England leaned on the depth and versatility of its backfield in Washington. Bolden had a key 29-yard touchdown catch on a wheel route early in the second half. White was his usual solid self in the short passing game, finishing with 6 catches for 46 yards. It was Michel, though, who had his best game of the season. The second-year back notched his first catch of the season on his way to 3 catches for 32 yards. On the ground he finished with 16 carries for 91 yards including a 25-yard long and 14-yard touchdown. Good all-around day for the Patriots running back committee.

Tom Brady/Julian Edelman – It wasn’t perfect or always pretty for either veteran stalwart, but the leaders of the New England offense got the job done. Brady gutted it out under pressure, completing 28 of 42 passes for 348 yards with three touchdowns and one ugly interception at the goal line for a 106.1 rating. Despite his chest injury, Edelman led the receiver with 8 catches on 9 targets for 110 yards and one touchdown.

Thumbs down

Offensive line/pass protection – As much faith as the entirety of the Patriots organization – and all of Patriots Nation – has in legendary line coach Dante Scarnecchia, his unit is simply struggling right now. A week after Brady was pressured often in Buffalo, it was the same story against a far-less impressive Redskins defense. Ted Karras allowed an early sack on a twist on a simple, three-man rush. Marshall Newhouse and Marcus Cannon were beaten for sacks off the edge. Karras had a holding call late in the second quarter that wiped out a Brady first down run and led to punt. The front is just not good enough right now and it’s leading to problems in both the running game and the passing game, including Brady being pressured into an ugly red zone interception for the second straight week. Washington finished with 4 sacks on Brady as well as 9 QB hits.

Wide receiver health/depth – Edelman was active once again despite dealing with a chest/rib injury that limited him in practice all week. He appeared to be grabbing at the injury early on in Washington, even as he was having a solid day against Josh Norman. Phillip Dorsett left the game against the Redskins with a hamstring injury in the first quarter and did not return. Josh Gordon missed practice time to his own knee injury last week. The Patriots have depth and health issues right now at receiver, which could be exacerbated by the short week of recovery and preparation for Thursday night’s battle with the Giants at Gillette.

Tackling – If there has been one minor issue with the Patriots otherwise stellar defense this season it’s been tackling. That showed up against Frank Gore a week ago in Buffalo. It showed up again on undrafted rookie receiver Steve Sims Jr.’s 65-yard end-around touchdown in the first quarter in Washington. The play included missed tackles by all Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty and Duron Harmon, while Kyle Van Noy appeared to give up on his pursuit of the play. It was a rare ugly play and some suspect tackling by the Patriots defense.

Mike Nugent – New kicker, same problem. While Nugent did hit a pair of field goals in his Patriots debut, the veteran also missed his first PAT attempt in a New England uniform and had another try hit the upright and fortuitously doink good in the second half. In blowout wins against bad teams missed PATs don’t matter, but a lack of confidence in or execution by the kicker could be an issues as the schedule draws more difficult in the coming months. The Patriots have now missed a PAT in four straight games and five total on the season. Not good. Not good at all.

Related: Report: Patriots ‘expected to push for’ A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert