Chase Winovich showed he could be a productive NFL player during his rookie season in 2019. The Patriots third-round pick played all 16 games and finished fourth on the team with 5.5 sacks to go with 10 quarterback hits.
Despite those numbers, Winovich knew there was room for improvement. The Patriots used him predominantly as a third-down pass rusher last season. He played only 28.9% of the defensive snaps and only once played over 50%.
On Sunday, against Miami, Winovich showed he was capable of much more. Winovich started the Patriots regular-season opener and played a career-high 48 snaps, playing 68% of the defensive play calls. The 25-year-old finished second on the team in tackles with six to go with a quarterback hit, a quarterback pressure and a run stuff.
“It was great. It was definitely something I put my mind to this offseason to prepare for, you know, possibly an expanded role,” Winovich said on Monday. “With that there’s different things you need to be concerned about because obviously when you’re just playing as a third-down pass-rusher, your focus is just a niche. But when you have to be concerned with every single down and every single type of situation, that’s where knowledge and experience as a football player come into play. Every week, I’m looking forward to whatever challenges come my way. Obviously there’s more things you need to be prepared for in trying to be an every-down kind of player. I’m embracing that challenge.”
On Sunday, Winovich looked like one of the Patriots best defensive players. He earned an elevated role after the team lost linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower during the offseason. It won’t be easy to replace that group, but a big jump from Winovich will help.
Winovich said he recognized he needed to improve after last season and when he watched the game film on Monday, he saw a different player.
“I realized the version I needed to be wasn’t what I currently was and I had to expand and part of that process is recognizing some of your weaknesses,” Winovich said. “I felt like just watching the film from yesterday, I think this was a relatively general observation — I look stronger. I look bigger. I look like my technique was better. I felt like some of those changes — there was definite improvement.”
Williams steps up
The Patriots secondary had its way with Miami quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on Sunday. The veteran finished with 191 passing yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions — by Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson and Adrian Philips.
This performance was very different from last year’s regular-season finale when Fitzpatrick threw for 320 yards and led the Dolphins to an upset of the Patriots at Gillette Stadium.
This time, the Pats had both a veteran step up and a newcomer.
Joejuan Williams barely played as a rookie in 2019, appearing in nine games and playing a total of 80 defensive snaps. On Sunday, the defensive back played 24 snaps to finish with two tackles and a pass deflection on third down. One of Fitzpatrick’s interceptions, the one to Jackson, came when Williams blanketed Mike Gesicki in the end zone.
“He had a couple of really good plays, big plays — a pass breakup on third down, had good coverage there on the interception at the end of the game, kind of on the overthrow there,” coach Bill Belichick said. “Well, he took Gesicki away and couldn’t get the ball in there and J.C. intercepted it. Gesicki, he’s a big receiver. I mean, he’s not really a conventional tight end, but he’s a tough matchup in the passing game, and felt like JoeJuan matched up against him and did a good job.”
Last year, Gesick caught four passes for 34 yards and a touchdown in the Dolphins’ win over the Patriots. On Sunday, he caught three passes for 30 yards. Fitzpatrick was 1-for-3 for nine yards when throwing to Gesicki with Williams in coverage. The tight end caught his other two passes on Adrian Phillips.
Overall, Sunday was a dominant day for the Patriots cornerbacks. Gilmore allowed four catches on seven targets for 43 yards to go with his interception. Jackson allowed one catch for 14 yards on his four targets to go with the pick. Fitzpatrick was 0-for-3, with an interception to Phillips, when targeting Jonathan Jones.
Are two better than one?
The Patriots didn’t expect to need a new right tackle this offseason. But when Marcus Cannon decided to opt out in July, it created a sizable hole in their offensive line. On Sunday, the Pats replaced the veteran with two players who haven’t had a lot of experience at that position.
The Patriots started Jermaine Eluemunor in the position. He played tackle in college, but was mainly used as a guard in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens. Eluemunor played 75% of the offensive snaps while rookie Michael Onwenu played 33%.
Onwenu played right tackle when Eluemunor came out of the game and also lined up as an extra blocking tight end. The rookie played guard at Michigan and hasn’t played tackle since high school. Eluemunor didn’t allow a sack or a pressure while Onwenu allowed one pressure on quarterback Cam Newton.
Belichick said on Monday that the team thought both players deserved playing time and even compared Onwenu to a former successful Patriots starting tackle.
“Mike’s a very flexible player. I don’t think he’s played tackle since high school, but he played a number of positions for us in training camp — guard, tackle, we saw tight end there in the game yesterday,” Belichick said. “Similar but different than [Nate] Solder — when Solder was drafted, of course he was a first-round pick, but came in and played the majority of his rookie year at right tackle and the jumbo tight end position. Mike’s earned playing time and he’s been able to play different spots for us.
″With Marcus opting out this year, we had a good opportunity to kind of open the right tackle position up to competition. Those two players are ahead of the rest of them at this point. We’ll see how that goes, but I think both Jermaine and Mike have the ability to play inside and outside. They’ve shown that, so we’ll just have to see how things progress moving forward. But it was good to get an evaluation of it yesterday and we’ll see how it goes next week and in the succeeding weeks.”
On Twitter: @MarkDanielsPJ