Welcome to our holiday version of Thursday Observations, brought to you a day early. Enjoy the day, enjoy football, and for Heaven’s sake, make sure you have enough cinnamon around the house if you need it, because that stuff is more coveted right now than spice in Dune.
Speaking of the holidays, it’s started to feel like Christmas around Foxboro, as they have received a treat of a schedule these few weeks. After last Sunday’s 30-17 besting of the Niners (or, for this week only, the 1-and-9ers) in San Francisco, the Patriots travel to New York to tackle the 3-7 Jets this coming Sunday at 4:25. After that, they host the 4-6 Rams on December 4. At 8-2, the Patriots have been gifted chances to gain some wins and fix a few things.
One of those things, of course, is the defense, which still needs improvement. However, as we said last week after the loss vs. Seattle, this was a game the Patriots needed to win, and they did so by a fair margin. It wasn’t pretty, but games against 1-9 teams in a driving rain usually aren’t.
I’d Buy That For A Dollar: It will be intriguing to watch if this team ever plays four full quarters of football. They started out well, holding the home team to a three-and-out and embarking on a scoring drive of their own, taking over after Danny Amendola’s 30-yard punt return and needing six plays to travel 27 yards for a touchdown. Julian Edelman pulled his best Baryshnikov, toe-tapping the right corner of the end zone for the opening score.
After that? A missed PAT by Stephen Gostkowski (this will not even get its own subhead this week because there’s nothing more to say about it. A missed PAT is like finally finding an empty seat on a crowded train and, just when you plop yourself down, realizing it smells like old herring). Then San Francisco went on a 12-play drive that took about as long as a summer day spent in a library, lopping 7:30 off the clock and gaining a field goal.
I mean, yes, points matter the most, but when one of the worst offenses in the league converts two third-and-longs in a row, and when Colin Kaepernick completes his first nine out of 10 passes for 120 yards, an issue or two must be lurking around somewhere, right? We can say – as we did last week with Seattle – that maybe the 49ers have found their mid-season rhythm and improved. Still, if that’s the case, then why has the Patriots’ defense become Lourdes for anemic offenses?
On the other hand, after missing on nine straight passes through the fourth, Kaepernick ended up 16 of 30 for 206 yards and two touchdowns passing. Not great, especially considering his fast start – but that was a fast start that New England’s defense needed to prevent.
Mr. Hyde And … Mr. Hyde? There doesn’t seem to be a Dr. Jekyll on the way to help out New England’s rush defense, as they allowed 86 yards on 19 carries to Carlos Hyde. Watching this game again, it looked like, rather than constantly running through wide open gaps, Hyde did a great job of shrugging off tackles. Coach Vince Lombardi would have been displeased.
The Jets’ Matt Forte averages 3.9 yards per carry. He’s also a threat out of the backfield, with 23 receptions for 179 yards this year. That could become an issue, considering…
Wheel Of Misfortune: Tough to say if the Patriots have ever had as much trouble covering the wheel route, when a running back sprints to the flat and heads upfield. Some sobering stats from NESN’s Doug Kyed yesterday, where rookie linebacker Elandon Roberts allowed 13 completions on 14 attempts for 154 yards and a touchdown.
So, yeah. Not the best.
Roberts can improve: he ran a 4.60 40-yard dash at his pro day, and he played more of an attacking style in college, which led to a national-second-best 84 solo tackles his senior year at Houston. He has the ability to cover the wheel route; he just hasn’t had to until this year. You can see his delayed reaction on the Niners’ last TD, when Shaun Draughn zipped along the sideline and caught a pass just short of the end zone. That seems fixable. Again, Forte will be a great barometer next week.
Bray For Brady: Or crow, or shout, or whatever you want to do. With one more win, quarterback Tom Brady will tie Peyton Manning for the most wins ever at 200. That seems right. I’m just not sure if New England fans always take the time to appreciate what they have in him.
Sure, he completed 24 of 40 passes for 280 yards and four touchdowns, but each touchdown deserves a closer look. There’s the aforementioned dropped feather to Edelman. After that, a pantomime pass to the right helped get James White open for a dunker screen on the left side (and kudos to White for asserting himself at the goal line), Then he ducked, spun, and slipped out of pressure to get off a fadeaway shot to Amendola. Finally, a sneaky laser over a defender’s helmet into rookie Malcolm Mitchell’s palm-frond-sized hands.
Look over each one, and enjoy. Brady’s a lot closer to the end of his career than the beginning. He’s just not playing like it.
Heat-Seeking Mitchell: Speaking of the rookie receiver, it has been rewarding to watch him grow this season. Unlike some recent, young Pats pass-catchers, he has shown an all-important connection with Brady that bodes well for his future. On Sunday, Mitchell had the aforementioned 56-yard catch-and-run. He also had an important snag over the middle to convert a third-and-9, and ended up with four receptions for 98 yards. Thus far, Mitchell has hauled in 11 passes for 193 yards on the year (17.5 avg.) and one TD.
His time should decrease once Chris Hogan returns, but this past game he helped establish himself as a dependable mid-range option.
Come On, Feel Van Noy’s: Linebacker Kyle Van Noy’s, um, pressure, I guess? The new Patriot had one sack and one pressure on Sunday, ending the day with two tackles total. The athleticism and experience of former Patriot Jamie Collins won’t be duplicated with one player; it seems that the coaching staff hopes Van Noy can come in on sub packages and pressure the QB.
Meanwhile, former first-round pick Barkevious Mingo has got to start pounding the protein powder. He had a chance to tackle Kaepernick during the Niners’ late drive but got flung off of the quarterback’s legs like discount tearaway pants. Disappointing showing by someone for whom some of us still hold out a little hope.
LeGrin And LeGarrette: Runaway-shopping-cart-full-of-frozen-turkeys LeGarrette Blount rolled to 124 yards on 19 carries yesterday, helping the visitors keep possession during a torrential downpour throughout the middle of the game. Blount currently has 201 totes for 802 yards this year (a nifty 4.0 yards per) and 12 touchdowns. He’s on pace to rush for over 1,200 yards on the season, a fact that few of us were considering in August.
Block Party: Maybe they’ll have Brady for two more years, maybe more, but no matter what, the Patriots need to continue to work on their blocking. The O-line did a decent job overall, and Mitchell had notable downfield efforts on a couple of Blount’s long runs. Special mention of Matt Lengel here, too. The 6-7, 266-pound tight end threw a great wham block on a late Blount run, slamming into the Niners’ defensive line to open a hole. With Rob Gronkowski dealing with a lung issue, the visitors didn’t use a lot of two tight end sets, which means they had to do without one of their best combo blockers. Lengel’s wham block, and its success, showed an important part of their typical game plan that was largely missing on Sunday.
White As Rain: Nice showing by running back James White. He executed the aforementioned screen well, and got up to ramming speed at the goal line, plowing over cornerback Rashard Robinson like he was a punching clown. White also came back along the sideline for a 14-yard third-quarter pass for a first down after Brady bought himself some time with a little do-si-do. White’s time will decrease as Dion Lewis’ reps increase, but he has become an important part of the offense.
Warming Up Those Turnovers: The Patriots haven’t stolen the football back much on defense. They had their chances last Sunday, as San Francisco had more balls on the ground than a nudist colony picnic. I counted four fumbles and a muffed punt in the nasty, rainy weather, yet the home team seemed to get every bounce. If one of those drops had gone New England’s way, maybe this game would have looked a little more like the walkover some had expected.
Slater Gets The Boot: Sorry to hear special teams ace Matthew Slater left the game early and ended up wearing a walking boot and using a crutch. New England’s special teams have played erratically, but on the whole they seemed to show improvement. We’ll see how much Slater’s absence affects them.
Branch Out: This type of thing makes me wonder if 2016 will end up as New England’s year. They show signs of improvement but need more plays together as a unit defensively, which seems like a perfect time for starting defensive tackle Alan Branch to get suspended for reported marijuana use. Listen, I don’t know what it’s like to hit professional football players for hours on end every week. I don’t know what it’s like to carry around an Easter Island body at 6-6, 325. I’m not pro-pot, but maybe, in lieu of prescription drugs like Vicodin, it helps alleviate pain.
But, man, if it’s against the rules – and if you know you’re getting drug tested – you’ve got to hold off. Interesting to see what rookies Vincent Valentine and Woodrow Hamilton can do.
Sheard Madness: Yeah, I don’t really know either. For Jabaal Sheard to go from a potential sack leader to sitting at home as a healthy scratch, something had to have happened. ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss spells out the probable reason in this column: poor play meant Sheard had to sit. For his sake, let’s hope he can improve in the coming weeks. This team’s defense would work better with a potentially potent pass-rusher than without one.
Fitz And Starts: As has been mentioned before in this column, the next few weeks will tell us a lot about the Patriots’ defense. Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick has had success against New England in the past. However, his 2016 season has been the equivalent of walking barefoot on a pebble driveway, as Fitzpatrick has passed for eight touchdowns against 13 interceptions, with a 56.4 completion rate, his lowest since 2009 (55.9 with the Bills). If the Jets can get a passing game moving against the Patriots, then we have reached a definitive worry point beyond, “Oh, the opposing passer has been showing improvement,” that applied to Seattle and, to a lesser extent, San Francisco.
That’s Not Your Only Option: In the springs of 2009 and 2010, I interviewed about 50 college players prepping for the NFL draft. One of my favorites was with a player who had no plans to try out for the NFL, a linebacker named Ross Pospisil (you can read the interview here). Even before then, in part due to my former Marine father, I had been a fan of Navy football. A prolific option attack is a fun thing to watch: Navy’s O has averaged 327 yards rushing per game, and they just came off of a 66-31 manhandling of East Carolina where they ran for 480 yards and nine TDs. Yeesh.
Every year, I compile a “That Guy” pre-draft series where I look at the types of players the Patriots tend to draft. This year’s frontrunners for “The Navy Guy” are fullback Shawn White (all 6-1, 255 pounds of him) and quarterback Will Worth. Navy plays SMU at 3:30 Saturday on ESPNU.
Walking Dead Spots: I think the writers of “The Walking Dead” forget what the show is about, and they start to weave intricate story lines about myriad characters talking to each other for most of an hour. When producers get interviewed, they say things like, “This show has zombies in it, but it’s not really about zombies.”
I disagree. It’s about zombies. If you think I watch that show to hear characters spew angst and reel off half an hour of exposition, you’ve lost sight of the fact that walker-killin’ is the best part. I really don’t need a soap opera set in post-apocalyptic Georgia. It’s dramatic enough with the dead rising and trying to eat the living. So, more head shots and knives to the temple, please.
(Insert joke relating flesh-eating zombies to Black Friday shoppers here.)
Feet Of Greatness: I’ll spend much of Thanksgiving watching Brady in his Foot Locker Week of Greatness commercial. If he doesn’t get considered for the Emmy, all of television is a sham.
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving. And don’t forget the cinnamon.
Chris Warner really wants a drumstick this year. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @cwarn89.