By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — For an athlete, there’s no such thing as a “fortunate” time to suffer an injury. Doubly so with a concussion. It’s a serious issue, and it’s one that isn’t always easy — or possible — to overcome.
So, for Patriots running back Rex Burkhead, there should be no pressure and no rush for him to expedite his efforts on the road to recovery. Rushing back too early from a concussion can lead to dangerous results. Though the science leaves room for interpretation, it sure feels like we saw that play out last Sunday with Texans cornerback Kevin Johnson.
As Burkhead’s situation relates to the Patriots as they prepare for the vaunted Jaguars defense, it certainly leaves Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady even more shorthanded at a most unfortunate time. That is, of course, provided that Burkhead won’t be able to play this weekend. Burkhead was present at the start of practice on Thursday, but that’s not necessarily a sign that he’s anywhere close to being able to return to full contact. Taking a look at the league’s concussion protocol, it would seem to be imprudent to expect Burkhead to progress through the five steps before the weekend.
UPDATE: Burkhead was listed as a limited participant at Wednesday’s practice, an upgrade from Wednesday.
(Speaking of the NFL, the league appears to have completely abandoned the “new rule” that prohibits the lowering of a player’s helmet prior to contact. The hit delivered on Burkhead by Kareem Jackson appeared to be a textbook violation of the “new rule,” which may no longer actually exist after too many people complained in the preseason.)
For an offense that lost Jeremy Hill to a torn ACL last weekend and is obviously still operating without Julian Edelman during his suspension, the Patriots appear to be short on manpower. Facing a defense like Jacksonville’s, that’s a bigger issue than it might be against a lesser opponent.
Burkhead was on the field last week for 51 percent of the team’s offensive snaps, taking two more snaps than James White. He was employed a number of different ways, at times taking snaps while White was also on the field. In Edelman’s absence, this two-back set involving two backs who can both rush and catch passes figured to be an important tool for Brady’s offense.
A best-case scenario for the Patriots would be to get first-round pick Sony Michel on the field for Sunday. While that certainly seems like a possibility — he missed the entire preseason and Week 1 of the regular season after undergoing a knee procedure in early August — it’s probably unrealistic to expect the rookie to have a complete grasp of the playbook. Of course, he wouldn’t need to know the entire playbook, as Bill Belichick’s comments on Wednesday about players who recently signed could likewise apply to Michel in his situation.
“When players come in at the beginning, they’re able to get a progression of installation and learn from the bottom up, build a foundation and work their way up. Now it’s more of a game plan situation so we don’t have all of our plays in for this game. We would never do that,” Belichick explained. “But the [plays] that we’re running this week, those are the ones we’ll focus on and we’ll try to catch up on as much as we can but we have to prioritize what’s going in for this game, what we need for this game. So we’ll start with that first. It’s a little bit of a backwards way of doing it but it’s the best way to prepare for a short window and try to catch up on all of the other things as much as we can — the terminology, all of the fundamental things, things that we’re not going to be doing this week that are important, but we won’t get to all of those this week but we’ll try to catch up on those as soon as we can, but that’s a challenge.”
Michel obviously has a leg up on any new signess in terms of understanding terminology and the system. But he’s yet to partake in any of the plays in an actual game setting. If Michel is deemed healthy enough to play, expectations for his output should be moderate at best.
Burkhead would figure to be most missed in the ground game. He was handed the ball 18 times last week; no other Patriot received more than five handoffs. With three rushes, receiver Cordarrelle Patterson nearly had as many carries as White (5).
Burkhead was targeted three times by Brady, including what should have been a touchdown pass early.
This is all relevant particularly this week because of the unfortunate combination for the Patriots that their offense is shorthanded and the Jaguars’ defense is the real deal.
Last year, the Jaguars ranked second in the NFL in yards and points allowed, second in sacks, second in interceptions, second in total takeaways, fourth in third-down defense, first in opponents’ passer rating, and first in pass yards allowed. In the AFC title game, they sacked Brady three times and hit him four more times. Though they couldn’t pick him off, they were the only team to limit him to under 300 yards passing in the postseason. (He threw for 337 yards vs. Tennessee and 505 yards vs. Philadelphia.) With basically the same cast of characters back this year, the job won’t be any easier for Brady.
If there were to be one theoretical weak spot on that Jacksonville defense, it might be in the run game. Last year, the Jags ranked 21st in rushing yards allowed and 26th in rush yards allowed per attempt. Thus far in 2018, they allowed rookie Saquon Barkley to reach 100 yards in his NFL debut. Granted, most of that came when Barkley broke a 68-yard touchdown run, but that’s perhaps indicative of the best chance an offense has to break through against Jacksonville’s D.
When it came to the Patriots’ attack last January, it was Brandin Cooks (6 receptions, 100 yards), Danny Amendola (7 receptions, 84 yards, 2 TDs) and Dion Lewis (7 receptions, 32 yards) who were the key contributors. None of those three players is on this year’s roster.
New England ran the ball just 19 times for 46 yards, instead opting to air it out exactly twice as many times. This year, with the thin receiving corps and the Edelman suspension, the Patriots might have been prepped for a more balanced approach. It looked that way last week, when they threw the ball 39 times and ran the ball 31 times. This week, it does not appear as though they’ll have that luxury.
The Patriots obviously still have Rob Gronkowski, yes. But without elite weapons on the outside, the Jaguars have more flexibility to utilize some of their best players to limit him. Even with Cooks, Amendola, and Lewis in the fold last year, Gronkowski caught just one pass for 21 yards before a helmet-to-helmet hit from safety Barry Church ended Gronkowski’s day before halftime.
Granted, Jacksonville’s offense figures to be hampered too. Leonard Fournette’s dealing with a hamstring injury that forced him off the field early on Sunday and kept him off the practice field on Wednesday. His status is not yet determined. Considering Fournette is the central figure of Jacksonville’s absence, if he’s out or even slowed down by the injury, then Jacksonville’s offense figures to be in for a tough day, too.
While anything can happen in a sport as unpredictable as football (don’t rule out a 10-catch day for James Develin!), it appears that even in a game with a quarterback disparity as deep as the canyon that exists between Tom Brady and Blake Bortles, Sunday’s game is going to be about defense above all else.