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Five Players Who Must Produce Down the Stretch For the Patriots

Via Associated Press
The New England Patriots appear headed towards another AFC East crown and playoff berth. As the team gears up for the final six games of the regular season, they'll look to climb up the standings, in hopes of earning home field advantage, but at the very least, to secure a bye on Wildcard Weekend. If the Patriots are going to work their way into one of the top 2 spots in the conference, and have yet another extended playoff run, the improvement of these five players will be key.

5. Danny Shelton

A former top-15 pick, the Patriots acquired Shelton in hopes of fortifying the middle of the defensive line and improving against the run. They've done so in spurts this year. The run defense is virtually just as effective, or ineffective depending on how you look at it, as last year.

The Patriots ranked 20th in the league last year, allowing over 114 yards per game on the ground. This year, they've worked their way up to 16th, but are still allowing over 111 yards per game. Shelton was supposed to bring more improvement than that. You can't pin the team's struggles against the run on just one guy, but Shelton is primarily a run stuffer.

He's not in there to get to the quarterback. He had 1.5 sacks in three seasons with Cleveland. That's why he played just 10 snaps against Green Bay. He is a more traditional defensive tackle, who uses his size to make it difficult to run between the tackles. Teams are getting too many yards on first and second down runs, setting up third and shorts. The Pats as a whole need to improve against the run, but Shelton is a big part of that.

4. Dont'a Hightower

Defensively, the Patriots have a playmaker upfront in Trey Flowers. They have one in Stephon Gilmore in the defensive backfield; and when he's been healthy, they've had Hightower holding things down amongst the linebackers. Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case for the majority of this season.

Hightower looked rusty in the early stages of this year, and rightfully so. He hadn't played a game in almost a full calendar year. He looked noticeably slower. After a slow start, he appeared to be turning a corner with strong performances against the Colts, Chiefs and Bears in consecutive weeks. He looked to have regained a little of that explosiveness, but more importantly, he was making game-changing plays.

The loss in Tennessee was a step back for the entire defense. Before that game, Hightower, and the defense as a whole, had been improving. The linebacking corps is the weakest portion of the Patriot defense, they're going to need Hightower to continue his improved play to keep the unit trending in the right direction.

3. Adrian Clayborn

Before the debacle in Tennessee, Clayborn had recorded a sack in three consecutive games. He was another guy whose play had picked up after a slow start to the season. It's a difficult transition for some defensive ends. Guys like Clayborn, Chris Long, Kony Ealy, etc. They are known for their pass rushing, so in previous years, teams have allowed them to do just that. However, in New England, there are more responsibilities. It can be a tough thing to adjust to. Long made it work for a season, helped win a ring, but ultimately moved on. Ealy never made it out of the preseason.

The snap counts indicate that Clayborn has had difficulty adapting as well. He's played about a third of the defensive snaps so far this season, typically on the field in likely passing downs/situations. He played just 9 snaps against the Titans, which makes sense. With the Pats down double digits most of the game, Tennessee was running the ball more often.

He may be struggling against the run, but he's shown enough flashes as a pass rusher to stay in the rotation. To have another legit pass rushing threat emerge alongside Flowers would be key for New England down the stretch and as they enter the postseason.

2. Chris Hogan

His first two seasons in New England, Hogan had some combination of a healthy Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski out on the field with him, garnering most of the defense's attention. He was able put up solid numbers as New England's third, or fourth option. The first four games of this season, He struggled to produce in the absence of Edelman, which shouldn't come as a surprise. With Edelman out, and other options limited, Hogan was forced into a #1 receiver role, which he is not. Hogan is most effective going against opposing defenses third or fourth cornerback, but he was drawing #1's and #2's, which he's not built for.

Hogan had just 8 catches on 15 targets, totaling 109 yards in the first four weeks. However, when Edelman returned, and Josh Gordon was acquired, he returned to form. Over the next three games, Hogan again had 15 targets, but hauled in 13 of them for 175 yards. It looked like he was back in his element. Except, Hogan has been held without a catch for two consecutive weeks now, and has been targeted just six times in the last three. He's been targeted two times or fewer in four games this year, something that didn't happen all of last year.

Is he not getting open, or is Tom Brady not seeing him get open? It's likely a combination of both, as Brady did miss Hogan roast Malcolm Butler in Tennessee a couple of weeks ago. However, if Hogan isn't getting open consistently, Brady may not be looking his way as often, and therefore could be missing him when he does get open. Whomever is at fault, one thing is for certain, the Patriots offense could benefit from some consistent play out of Hogan down the stretch.

1. Tom Brady

Look at the some of the top defenses of this season. Tennessee and Baltimore are both .500 teams. Jacksonville likely won't make the playoffs. Chicago has one of the top defenses in the league, but at 8-3, nobody is talking about them as a Super Bowl contender. Buffalo is second in the league in yards allowed per game, and will have a top 5 pick in next year's draft. Quarterback play is the most important part of a team's success. Defenses are not carrying teams to Super Bowls anymore. The Denver team from 2015 was an exception to the rule.

That's the nature of the NFL today. Just look at last Monday's game between the Chiefs and the Rams. If you have exceptional quarterback play, all you need is a defense to make a few plays here and there.

So, the Patriots are going to need stronger play from Brady as the team enters the final stretch of the season. He has not been at his best, that's clear. People like to point out that he has one touchdown in the last three games, which isn't exactly fair. The team put up 31 points against Green Bay. The fact that they had three rushing touchdowns of less than 10 yards is not an indictment on Brady's effectiveness. However, the Titans game was by far his worst of the season.

One thing he is doing better is taking care of the ball. After throwing 6 INT's in the first five games, he threw just one in the next five.

Has Brady been his best self this year? No. Not consistently anyways. However, this is NOT a Brady is "falling off the cliff" take. No, this is more of an obvious statement. In order for the Patriots to get where they want to go, Brady must produce like the team is accustomed to seeing him do. That's the way the Patriots have been built for the past fifteen years.

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