Patriots rookie cornerback Christian Gonzalez played 100 percent of the defensive snaps Sunday, a reflection of both the team’s trust in him and the lack of depth at his position.
Gonzalez lived up to his first-round billing in his NFL debut, finishing with seven tackles, a sack, and a key pass break-up. The Eagles frequently targeted Gonzalez, who matched up against both A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith, but he showed his ability to stick with two of the more talented wide receivers in the NFL.
Although Gonzalez ceded multiple catches as the closest defender, he was quick to make the tackle and did not surrender any big plays. He also proved to be effective in run defense, helping contain dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts and even breaking through for an 8-yard sack.
But Gonzalez’s most important highlight came in the fourth quarter, with Philadelphia looking to close out the game on a crucial fourth down. He broke up a pass intended for Smith, giving New England’s offense one last chance to win the game. Gonzalez credited his film study with helping him get the stop.
“They’re great receivers,” he said. “It’s my job to come and try to do what I do and play what the defense needs me to do.”
Safety Kyle Dugger and linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley were the two other Patriots to play 100 percent of the defensive snaps.
Other notes from New England’s snap counts …
⋅ Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne was on the field for 91 percent of the offensive snaps — the most playing time he’s received during his time as a Patriot. He made good use of it, catching 6 of his 11 targets for 64 yards and two touchdowns. Bourne, who is in the final year of his contract, has all the motivation to stay productive this season. If DeVante Parker remains sidelined, Bourne should remain a top target for explosive plays.
⋅ Rhamondre Stevenson out-snapped Ezekiel Elliott, 58-28, but the two largely split the backfield responsibilities. Stevenson finished with 12 carries for 25 yards, while Elliott logged seven for 29. Both maintained an active role in the passing game as well. The run game seemed hampered by the offensive line, with two rookies starting on the interior. The return of guards Michael Onwenu and Cole Strange should help Stevenson and Elliott on the ground.
⋅ JuJu Smith-Schuster played 54 percent of the offensive snaps and was off the field for the team’s final offensive drive. Rookie receiver Kayshon Boutte was on the field more (69 percent), with Demario Douglas not far behind (41 percent).
Boutte’s extensive playing time could have been related to Parker’s absence, as Smith-Schuster and Douglas are considered to be more slot receivers. Bill Belichick would not explain the division of playing time after the game. Asked Monday to describe Smith-Schuster’s conditioning level, he said, “I think he and the team are in good condition.”
⋅ Cornerback Marcus Jones took the field for one offensive snap — Elliott’s fumble — showing the Patriots are still interested in utilizing Jones in all three phases of the game. In addition to 24 defensive snaps, he took nine on special teams, serving as the primary punt returner.
⋅ Rookie defensive end Keion White and linebacker Marte Mapu both earned a bit of playing time, with White on the field for 35 percent of the defensive snaps and Mapu on for 14 percent. White helped the pass rush generate pressure on Hurts, forcing him out of the pocket on multiple occasions.
Change of heart
Belichick said Monday morning the team “probably should have” punted late amid their attempt at a fourth-quarter comeback.
On a fourth and 17 from Philadelphia’s 48-yard line, with 2:24 on the clock and all three of their timeouts remaining, the Patriots decided to keep their offense on the field. Trailing by 5, they could have attempted a 60-yard field goal or punted in hopes of getting a defensive stop. Instead, they went for the first down, only to have Hunter Henry drop a pass that was about five yards short of the sticks.
“There wasn’t a lot of field position to be gained,” Belichick said. “We could have punted it — probably should have punted on fourth and 17. But we’re on their side of the 50. It’s too long for a field goal. Fourth and 17 is a lot tougher than fourth and 12.”
A delay-of-game penalty had just backed them up another five yards, but the flag did not alter Belichick’s thinking at the time.
According to ESPN, the decision would not have drastically shifted New England’s win probability. The Patriots had a 12.7 percent chance to win by punting and an 11.4 percent chance by going for it. And after the turnover on downs, the defense got a stop to give the offense another possession with two minutes remaining.
Belichick did stand by an earlier fourth-down play, a fourth and 3 from Philadelphia’s 17-yard line with 9:39 remaining. Trailing by 8, the Patriots could have kicked a 34-yard field goal, but instead pushed to keep their drive alive. But Mac Jones was unable to connect with Elliott, giving the Eagles possession.
The Patriots ultimately converted one of their four fourth downs and five of their 15 third downs.
Mum on Corral
Belichick said the team has been in touch with quarterback Matt Corral, who is on the exempt/left team list. Corral did not practice Friday. Belichick would not elaborate on the circumstances, calling the situation “a personal matter.”