The New England Patriots enter Sunday's matchup with the Las Vegas Raiders as the odds-on favorite, but their opponent is the one riding a winning streak into Foxboro.
Victories over Carolina and preseason Super Bowl favorite New Orleans helped Las Vegas kick off their first season in Nevada with a bang, and New England will be tasked with preventing them from starting 2020 with a perfect 3-0 record.
PatriotMaven is breaking down the three most important matchups before every game all season long, with Sunday’s game against the Raiders next up on the slate.
Bill Belichick vs. Darren Waller
With a potential mismatch tight end like Waller next up on the slate, it’s nearly impossible to predict how Belichick plans to slow him down.
The future Hall of Fame coach praised Waller in press conferences this week, claiming he was unlike any tight end the Patriots have played in recent memory. He may not have the pedigree of someone like Rob Gronkowski or Travis Kelce, since he was only a sixth round pick back in 2015, but his stats are unique to say the least.
Despite coming in at 6-foot-6, 255 pounds, Waller is much more of a speed weapon than a red-zone threat. He has just four touchdowns in his last 18 games, but has also racked up 1,295 receiving yards over that same timespan.
In two games this season, Waller has 150 yards and a touchdown on 18 catches and 24 targets.
The Patriots lost Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy to the Miami Dolphins in free agency last spring, and Patrick Chung opted out of the season due to COVID-19 back in August. Almost all of the toys Belichick had used to slow down receiving tight ends in the past are gone.
Belichick will likely wind up throwing some combination of Ja’Whaun Bentley, Joejuan Williams, Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips at Waller to slow him down.
He could double him, bring over a cornerback or do something completely unexpected to help neutralize the Raiders’ most reliable target.
Whichever solution Belichick decides to go with could decide whether or not Las Vegas tears up New England’s secondary come Sunday afternoon.
Hjalte Froholdt vs. Johnathan Hankins
David Andrews is most likely going to miss Sunday’s matchup due to recent thumb surgery, meaning Froholdt may have to hold down the middle of the Patriots’ front line.
That responsibility could be daunting in any week, but especially when going up against a veteran run-stuffer like Hankins.
Hankins hasn’t been quite as elite of an interior defensive lineman as many thought he would be after earning a spot of Pro Football Focus’ Second Team in 2014. His pass rush abilities have already faded considerably at age 28, since over half of career sacks came in that 2014 season.
Still, Hankins has 100 games, 273 tackles, 34 tackles for loss and 32 stuffs under his belt – far more impressive than Froholdt’s zero career NFL snaps. On top of that, Hankins has had a great start to the 2020 season, grabbing some strong grades by PFF in Week 2 especially.
After missing the entire 2019 season with an injury, Froholdt entered 2020 as the backup for both Andrews and Shaq Mason. Froholdt did play center at Arkansas, but it has been nearly two years since he earned a start under center.
An inexperienced, albeit versatile, Froholdt will be joining an offensive line that has been New England’s most reliable unit through two games this season. If he can rise to the occasion and play at the level of his surrounding teammates, handling Hankins shouldn’t be a problem.
But if Froholdt struggles early on, New England may not be able to establish the run, and they could find themselves playing catch-up for the second game in a row.
Stephon Gilmore vs. Derek Carr
Russell Wilson was not afraid to throw at Gilmore last week in Seattle, and it paid off for the Seahawks.
Carr has been one of the league’s most efficient quarterbacks through two weeks, but his willingness to attack the 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year could decide Sunday’s matchup in Foxboro.
The three-time Pro Bowl quarterback has yet to throw a pick this year, and he is completing his passes at a 70.7 percent rate dating back to the start of last season. Carr’s 115.0 passer rating and 76.9 QBR are both career-highs for the 29-year-old signal-caller.
Those solid stats have come against lackluster New Orleans and Carolina defenses, however. While New England’s pass defense is not as great as it was in 2019, they still project to be a tougher matchup than those two NFC South opponents.
Gilmore, especially, will be looking to bounce back from a game in which he got regularly picked on by both Wilson and D.K. Metcalf. If Carr starts off the day aggressive and thinks he can match Wilson’s precision and timing, Gilmore could take full advantage.
The Raiders’ receiving corps are young and inexperienced. Gilmore probably won’t be locked on one wideout all day.
Wherever he is on the field, Gilmore’s ability to force turnovers and intimidate opposing quarterbacks could change the tides on Sunday, and that could be the spark the Patriots need to slow down Carr through the air.
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