To get ready for Sunday's Detroit Lions game, I sent five questions to Greg Knopping from Pats Pulpit, SB Nation's New England Patriots blog. You can check out his answers below.
1. Ever since their blowout loss to the Kansas City Chiefs back in Week 4, the Patriots have played like one of the NFL's top teams. What has been the biggest difference for this team since then?
There are a lot of adjustments the Patriots have made since that Week 4 loss, and this is really a completely different football team. Defensively, the Patriots have slowly been improving all year, and they are much more capable of defending the run than they were in the early going. But the main difference has come on offense. For one, Rob Gronkowski is actually healthy. He was not moving as well in the early portions of the season, but is cutting as well as ever now. The real game-changer, however, has been Tom Brady. The team rallied behind Brady after that loss, and Brady's chemistry and trust with his teammates has grown immensely since then. He's been at the top of his game, playing better than ever.
2. What makes Rob Gronkowski such a tough matchup for defenses?
Everything -- he's the complete package at tight end. He has a massive frame at over 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds. He has the fluidity and athleticism in and out of his breaks to beat most safeties and all linebackers in man coverage. He's fast. His catching radius and hands are insane. He's ferocious as a run blocker. He plays with an angry streak. It always takes more than one player to take him down after the catch. When healthy, he is one of the best tight ends I've ever seen play. And right now, he's healthy.
3. Jonas Gray, who is actually from Michigan, came out of nowhere on Sunday for a four-touchdown performance. Just how surprising was that, and is he expected to be the Patriots' main running back going forward?
Anyone who saw Gray in the preseason knew that he had talent as a runner. When Stevan Ridley went down for the year, it was a nice opportunity for him, as he became the team's top early-down runner by default. Nonetheless, I do not think anyone saw him having the success he had against the Colts. Even with the addition of LeGarrette Blount, Gray figures to be the team's early-down back going forward. He hasn't been involved at all as a receiver, and Shane Vereen is the clear-cut third-down/passing back.
4. What are the Patriots' biggest strengths and weaknesses on defense?
The Patriots' biggest strength is their secondary. Darrelle Revis is still one of the best man-cover corners, and can take any assignment. Brandon Browner is extremely physical, and has matched up against bigger receivers and tight ends. Kyle Arrington has quietly become of the league's best slot cornerbacks. Devin McCourty might have the best range of any free safety in the league. Patrick Chung has been a great redemption story at the other safety spot. This unit is deep, and is versatile in the types of weapons they are able to slow down.
Right now, the unit's biggest weakness is probably their pass rush. Rob Ninkovich is very solid off the edge, but shouldn't be relied on as a team's top rusher. Akeem Ayers was picked up in a mid-season trade from the Titans and has played well, but is no Chandler Jones. The Patriots have a lot of depth on the inside, but players such as Vince Wilfork and Alan Branch fit the "run stuffer" prototype. Rookie Dominique Easley is showing signs of promise, but isn't a consistent threat yet. The best way the Patriots have created pressure the last few weeks is through delayed linebacker blitzes.
5. What needs to go wrong for the Patriots in order for the Lions to have a shot at winning on Sunday?
I don't buy the "what needs to go wrong" line of thinking. Instead, I'll go with "what do the Lions need to do." And that is pretty simple: shut down the run to make the Patriots one-dimensional and create pressure up the middle. Brady struggles in the pocket when he can't trust his protection, especially when there's pressure coming from the middle. The Patriots are definitely better on the interior than they were at the start of the season, but that's obviously an area where the Lions are strong and could slow the Patriots down.
When the Lions are on offense, they need to take what the Patriots defense gives them. New England is a pretty disciplined unit, and they are not going to give up many big plays. That being said, the Lions need to take advantage when the Patriots are in off-man and zone by picking up moderate chunks of yardage. If the Patriots run a lot of press-man, they need to go to crossing routes and pick plays. If they ever get Theo Riddick or Reggie Bush matched up against Dont'a Hightower or Jamie Collins, the Lions need to go deep (both Hightower and Collins are pretty solid in short-area zone and man against tight ends, but struggle against faster backs).
Editor's Note: Pride Of Detroit is hosting its very own FanDuel league this week. It's $5 to join, and first place wins $50. Go here to join.