FOXBORO — It was somewhat easy to see why the Patriots came out looking like a different team last Sunday against the Bills.
The Patriots made key personnel changes that led the offense and defense to perform considerably better than they had played through the first six weeks of the season.
They played a rookie wide receiver more, made a key change on their offensive line and activated a defensive playmaker before the game.
Head coach Bill Belichick must now continue to ride with what worked Sunday against the Dolphins.
So, these four players must continue to play key roles in Week 8:
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WR Demario Douglas
It’s not unreasonable to compare Douglas to some of the players who came before him in the long lineage of Patriots slot receivers.
Douglas isn’t Troy Brown, Wes Welker, Danny Amendola or Julian Edelman yet, but he’s also a rookie and has already shown some of the same skills at beating man coverage and making plays after the catch using his quickness that they brought to the Patriots’ offense during the dynasty era.
It’s too bad that the Patriots invested so much money in wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in free agency before selecting Douglas in the draft, because the rookie has been considerably better out of the slot so far this season. He received his most playing time Sunday with Smith-Schuster out.
It’s unclear what will happen with Smith-Schuster if Douglas keeps earning starting snaps in the slot. The veteran can also play the “Z” role in the offense, but Kendrick Bourne plays that spot and is the Patriots’ most consistent wide receiver. DeVante Parker and Jalen Reagor were competing for snaps in the “X” role last week, and the team still has Tyquan Thornton and Kayshon Boutte on their 53-man roster.
Smith-Schuster was inactive after being listed on the injury report with a concussion last week. We’ll see if he can get back on the active roster in Week 8.
RT Mike Onwenu
The offensive line played its best game of the season in Week 7’s win, and it’s really no big surprise that it came with Onwenu at right tackle.
Onwenu is a better right guard, but he’s also the best right tackle option the Patriots have on their roster. They’ve rifled through Riley Reiff, Conor McDermott, Sidy Sow, Calvin Anderson and Vederian Lowe since training camp broke in July. Then they finally made the move to start Onwenu at right tackle Sunday, and it paid off in a big way.
The Patriots could elevate McDermott from the practice squad and move Onwenu back to right guard. But it worked with Trent Brown at left tackle, Cole Strange at left guard, David Andrews at center and rookie Sidy Sow at right guard. The Patriots are better off not messing with what worked.
CB Jonathan Jones
The Patriots took what was probably a smart approach at cornerback with Jack Jones returning off of injured reserve and Jonathan Jones still nursing a knee injury suffered in Week 7.
J.C. Jackson served as one outside cornerback, and Myles Bryant played the slot while Jack Jones and Jonathan Jones split snaps the other outside cornerback position.
If Jackson and both Jonses are healthy, then they create the team’s best cornerback combination with Christian Gonzalez expected to be out for the season. Jackson and Jack Jones can play outside, and Jones can return to the slot, where he spent the majority of the early portion of his career.
The Patriots would be better off with Gonzalez on the active roster, but Jackson, Jack Jones and Jonathan Jones can be a very good cornerback combination.
DT Christian Barmore
The 2021 second-round pick out of Alabama has made a major impact in consecutive weeks. He registered five defensive stops Week 6 against the Raiders and then generated four pressures, including one sack, against the Bills while still producing two defensive stops.
“B-More’s had a really good year,” Belichick said Wednesday. “He’s been healthy. He had a good offseason. I’d say this is the hardest that he’s trained or was able to train. Some of that’s been a little bit rehab-related. He’s had a good offseason, good training and he’s playing well. I think those things usually go together.”
Barmore is on pace to set a career high in defensive snaps. The 24-year-old ranks 12th out of 54 qualified defensive tackles in PFF’s pass-rush grade, 22nd in pressures and 12th in pass-rush win rate.