The 2017 Patriots have sent their fans’ emotions into more ups and downs than a bad soap opera actor. After a last-second loss to Carolina two weeks ago that had the locals keening, last Thursday’s 19-14 win at Tampa Bay got everyone cheering again.
Now at 3-2, New England sits atop the AFC East Division along with the Jets and Bills (Miami is 2-2). They deserve credit for traveling to Tampa on a short week after an upsetting loss to Carolina. They also get some appreciation for managing their offense without tight end Rob Gronkowski, a last-minute scratch. Yet it’s difficult to get a handle on what kind of Patriots team we have, here. Despite a defense that did well through three quarters, is Tampa quarterback Jameis Winston’s output of 224 yards in the fourth quarter reason for concern? I’ve heard praise for New England holding Winston to a mere 109 yards passing through three quarters, but the fourth wasn’t exactly garbage time full of meaningless yards.
Put another way, using last season’s final game, I don’t think Atlanta feels like bragging about holding the Patriots without a touchdown for most of three quarters.
So, is this team the 2014 Patriots, who started 2-2 and made a run to the Super Bowl? Or are they the 2014 Red Sox, high-flying defending champs who came back to earth and crushed high hopes? (Ah. Red Sox.) In his ESPN.com column, Mike Reiss studies the Patriots and does a great job exploring the question, “How good are they?”
This upcoming game at the Jets (Sunday, 1 p.m.) will tell us a lot. Last week, New York pushed past Cleveland, 17-14, in a battle of offensive ineptitude rarely seen at the NFL level. You may think, wait, the Pats-Bucs score was similar. But, dear reader, the offensive execution was not. Cleveland amazed me, because every time they managed to cobble a drive together, I found myself asking, “How will the Browns mess this up?” And, almost every time I asked, they answered.
A quick rundown of Cleveland’s first-half drives: 3-and-out; fumble on awkward-looking option pitch (after a 13-play drive reached the Jets’ 3-yard line); missed 52-yard field goal attempt; interception in end zone (after a 10-play drive reached the Jets’ 4-yard line); missed 39-yard field goal. So, yes, they missed a few scoring opportunities.
If New England fails to get on the board early at New York, or if they give up big pass plays, or if this one comes down to a stomach-clencher, then we still don’t know what kind of team they have. But it wouldn’t be looking good.
Some thoughts on last week’s game and quite a few other things…
On The Quarterback’s Back: Impressive work by Tom Brady considering he took more hits than a golf ball collector. Brady hit 75 percent of his passes (30 of 40) for 303 yards and one touchdown. His one interception (first of the year) happened on a pass where he appeared to throw a slider that Chris Sale would envy. (Ah. Chris Sale.) Brady found himself under constant pressure from a group that had only netted one sack in the previous three games. They tripled that output last Thursday. The offensive line failed to sustain blocks, flat-out missed blocks, or committed penalties in their efforts to make blocks. (One egregious example of that happened with 3:40 left in the first quarter, when tackle Nate Solder seemed to attempt a clumsy piggy-back ride on defensive tackle Gerald McCoy for a holding penalty. Strange-looking play, where Solder got beat to the inside, kind of threw his arm around McCoy’s shoulders from behind, then appeared to give up.)
Brady held the team together and made plays under duress all night. Here’s another example of how the Jets game will reveal more about the Patriots: New York has seven sacks in five games. They have the 26th-ranked defense in the NFL. If Brady struggles to move the ball in New York, that will not bode well for the rest of the season.
You Marsh Right Up To Your Room, Young Man: I have been intrigued with the potential of new Patriot Cassius Marsh. After last week, I find myself less intrigued. New England dealt with more yellow laundry than the Australian soccer team’s equipment manager, with an eye-gouging 12 penalties for 108 yards. (Those look more like notable receiving stats than penalty numbers.) Marsh was one of many offenders. Five minutes into the game, he had a thoughtless offside penalty on third and 20, which was declined only because rookie Deatrich Wise failed to live up to his surname by committing a hands-to-the-face infraction that gave Tampa an automatic first down. The home team ended up scoring on that drive for a 7-3 lead. Later, Marsh prolonged the first half when, with no time remaining, he committed a roughing the passer penalty that gave the Bucs a chance for a 59-yard field goal (we all know how that went, but still). The doltishness of this deed was magnified because, on the previous play, Wise had a roughing the passer penalty that turned a 5-yard completion into a 20-yard gain. Rough combos for those two.
Special teams veteran Brandon Bolden not only joined the nitwit brigade, he certified himself as an esteemed member of its board. He blocked in the back on a punt return in the first quarter, negating a nine-yard tally by Danny Amendola. Worst of all, Bolden went offsides on fourth and two, giving Tampa Bay a chance to extend their drive. Instead of punting from their own 33, the home team drove another 25 yards, eventually punting the ball down to New England’s 10-yard line.
Again, Thursday night games have a deserved reputation as slopfests. Know New England knows to clean it up, and they have an extra few days of rest and preparation.
We Can Dance If We Want To: Nice work across the board by safeties Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon. All three had pass break-ups to end Tampa drives, including Chung with a couple on dangerous tight end Cameron Brate. Brate’s touchdown catch between McCourty and Chung just came down to great timing and athleticism executed in a safety sandwich. McCourty led the team with 11 tackles, including a stop on a bubble screen pass where he had to slice through traffic, while Chung had three stops and Harmon one. Strong overall play from these defensive backs, a much different-looking portrait from the previous week.
Speaking of which…
License To Gilmore? While cornerback Stephon Gilmore accepted heaps of praise for his play last Thursday, maybe the bar had been set a little low. After weeks of running around like a sugar-addled seven-year-old at a birthday party scavenger hunt, Gilmore seemed to settle down in Tampa, often focusing on receiver Mike Evans, who ended up with a merely decent five catches for 47 yards. So, does this one game make Gilmore a shutdown corner? Does he completely understand the defense now? Probably not, but he did appear to make some kind of progress.
I was a bit taken aback by the perspective that Gilmore had shut up the press with his performance, because I never thought his one-on-one coverage abilities were an issue. He’s a top-notch cover guy, it’s just that his communication skills (or lack thereof) have seemed to create problems. If New England decides to plaster Gilmore on the opposition’s biggest, best receiver, then that could provide the best option for the defense. Overall, though, it doesn’t answer questions about his football savvy and his ability to mesh with the rest of his backfield mates during more complex defensive calls.
But, yes, if it’s the “Hey-Stephon-Cover-That-Guy” Defense for the rest of the season, fine.
Catching Up: The receivers took on the bulk of the work offensively. Danny Amendola, aka Mr. Dependable, hauled in eight passes for 77 yards. Brandin Cooks had five catches for 85 yards, including a 34-yard looper that found him near the right sideline after he’d crossed the field and jetted into the open. Chris Hogan caught eight for 74 and brought in New England’s only touchdown of the day.
While Brady always seems to take advantage of myriad receivers at his disposal, only five players caught passes from him in Tampa. (And no, smartypants, I’m not including Bucs safety Justin Evans.) This lack of variety can hinder a multiple offense like New England’s. At the very least, it points to how much they missed Gronk.
A window to Brady’s effectiveness when he gets to mix up his targets opened up on New England’s touchdown drive, when he connected on all seven of his passes to four receivers. White (three catches on the drive, including the aforementioned 24-yarder), Cooks (19-yard come-backer), Amendola (10 yards on third and five, plus a seven-yarder), and Hogan (five-yard TD at the goal line) all got involved on the nine-play drive. The more viable options Brady has to throw to, the more likely he can keep the ball moving.
Oh, wait: did I mention the tight end before? Hunh…
And It’s Getting Very Hard To Stay: A little rough here in Allentown, as tight end Dwayne Allen has seen fewer balls come his way than the population of Themyscira. While Brady went 10 for 10 passing in the second quarter, he targeted tight ends zero times. Zip. Allen has focused on blocking, but he got run around like a Tyco race car track by linebacker Adarius Glanton, who strip-sacked Brady at Tampa’s 45 to end a promising drive. Allen missed another block with 1:40 left in the first half when he tried to shadow Noah Spence but failed, allowing the 6-2, 251-pound defensive end to stop White for a short gain at Tampa’s nine-yard line. Three plays later, New England ended up settling for a field goal.
I’ve been disappointed in Allen, but I’d be willing to overlook his inability to get open if he could help protect Brady and spring backs loose. Rookie TE Jacob Hollister looks like a more viable receiver, plus I’m sure he can miss blocks just as well as Allen can. Thus continues my campaign to get Hollister more time.
Weekly backup tight end reception count for the season: Hollister two, Allen zero. I’m just saying.
The Giving Three: Strong complementary work by running backs Dion Lewis, Mike Gillislee, and White. Lewis averaged 7.6 yards per carry (seven for 53) and had a 31-yard burst in the second quarter where he followed fullback James Develin and shrugged off the tackle attempt of safety Chris Conte (highlight here) to set up New England’s first field goal. Gillislee ran like my writing career (decent overall, maddeningly close to breaking through) averaging a solid 4.3 yards per tote (12 for 52). It will be surprising if he can’t come up with a couple of 20- or 30-yard jaunts soon. White, meanwhile, caught seven passes for 57 yards, including a 24-yard lofted specimen along the right sideline where he showed off softer hands than a Palmolive commercial. (Ah. Madge.) That play led to the visitors’ only touchdown of the day. This kind of complementary football among the various running backs confirms what coaches seemed to expect going into the season. Continuing this productivity will help separate the Pats from the AFC East pack.
Something Of A Mesh: A closer look at Douglas Martin’s 5.7-yard average rushing (13 for 74) shows that the defensive line and linebackers still need better fits in the run game. A prime example of this happened with 11:30 left in the first half, as Martin hesitated for a half-second before bursting through a living-room-sized gap in the line for a 17-yard gain. While Lawrence Guy and Malcom Brown got walled off and had little chance to make the tackle, most noticeable was the absence of linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower, who seemed to overrun the play and rush gaps to Martin’s left, leaving no one but defensive backs in his path.
This situation is worth monitoring, as New England ranks 29th in average rush yards allowed (5.0) 24th in total rushing yards allowed per game (124.2). Meanwhile, New York’s offense has the eighth-best average carry (4.5) and the 12th-best yards per game (111.4).
And That Ain’t Too Cool: Can anyone think of a couple of offensive linemen who get overwhelmed by bigger defensive tackles? Hey, Joe Thuney. Hey, David Andrews. These two young players won starting jobs because they remain master technicians who rarely make missteps. That said, when a fast, strong, 300-pound D-lineman like McCoy lines up opposite those two – or when a 315-pounder like the Jets’ Muhammad Wilkerson does – all the technique they can muster fails to stop a potential onslaught.
As noted, Tampa Bay notched three sacks last week. If the middle of the O-line fails to keep Brady from taking shots like he’s a target in Big Buck Hunter, then the visitors will have a tough time down in New York.
He Was Kicking Himself (And Missed): The first thing I wrote in my notes upon seeing who kicked off last Thursday night was, “Christ. Hold old is Nick Folk?” I’m not going to pile on here, as the soon-to-be-former Bucs kicker has been through enough, but had he made two of his three missed field goals – or even hit one and set himself up for a game-winner – then New England would be dealing with a losing record.
On the other side, Stephen Gostkowski hit all four attempts, including a 48-yarder more down-the-middle than Iowa. Kicking proficiency seems like a week-to-week, even play-by-play situation, and as of late, Gostkowski has appeared back on track.
We Can Act If We Want To, If We Don’t Nobody Will: Strange non-call by the officials on what looked like intentional grounding by Winston. With 10:35 left in the fourth, Tampa Bay had first down on their own three-yard line. Pats linebacker Elandon Roberts blitzed up the middle, forcing Winston to hurl the football about 15 yards downfield and 10 yards out-of-bounds. Evans is credited as the intended target, but he’d sprinted past the 25. Rich Hill of PatsPulpit.com goes into illustrative detail on this non-call in his column. It seems obvious that, due to Roberts’ rush, Winston had no intention of even trying to connect with a receiver on the play.
No one on the broadcast mentioned it. A safety that would have resulted from a penalty in the end zone could have turned the tide of the game in New England’s favor, as they held a 16-7 lead at the time. Meh. What are you gonna do?
On to the TV stuff!
Romo Sapien: Getting used to this guy Tony Romo in the booth, as he and Jim Nantz continue to pair up well for CBS. Romo started out strongly with a reference to the old Joe Gibbs tight-end-based offenses in Washington Tampa uses, which he noted might be favorable to New England’s defense considering Bill Belichick’s success vs. those formations as a D-coordinator. A few other solid points:
• Romo: “I think there’s a better rapport between Hollister and Brady than there is with Allen.” No argument here.
• Nice analysis by Romo on Winston’s missing Charles Sims with 10 minutes left in the first half, noting that, if Winston leads the running back, he can get to the sideline for extra yardage. It’s just good to have a recent NFL QB viewing the game like one.
• One of multiple prescient Romo comments came after the penalty on Bolden for a first down. “This can jump-start your offense.” Next play, 16-yard completion to Adam Humphries.
CBS did some other good things, including…
• Still loving the picture-in-picture mode during 30-second timeouts. We get the commercial without leaving the game. Amazing no one thought of this as a regular thing before this year.
• Nice touch playing “Running Down A Dream” going to the break after the first quarter. (Ah. Tom Petty.)
• Telling graphic, alluded to above, that Brady had targeted the tight ends zero times by the end of the second quarter, while the wide receivers had 15 targets and the running backs six.
• Tracy Wolfson showed why she remains one of my favorite sideline reporters in her halftime segment by summarizing her questioning Belichick about the late-second-quarter penalties, saying “He did not want to talk about it at all.” I’ll bet. Great call not to show the actual, surely-awkward interview.
• The fact that Brady once held for former Michigan kicker/current CBS kicking expert Jay Feeley raises the latter in my estimation.
And now, our weekly call for replays that weren’t:
• Gillislee had a nice run at the 4:00 mark of the first quarter for a first down. Allen went into backfield motion, but it’s very hard to tell how the line blocked that right side to give the running back room. Could have used another look.
• Flowers had a sack with 3:30 left in the second quarter. Not sure how he got past his man or who else was involved.
Yup, that’s about it. Another solid overall week from CBS.
What The Ever-Loving Tuck? Watched “The Timeline: The Tuck Rule” short doc this weekend. A few things stuck out to me. One, while I’ll never blame Raiders fans for lamenting the rule or the result from 2002 (Pats fans have similar difficulty letting go – see: Roughing the Passer, 1976), I can call out former Raider receiver Tim Brown for refusing to acknowledge that a) the rule was not, in fact, dreamed up on the spot to screw Oakland, and b) the Tuck Rule had been called in a handful of games during the 2001 season (including unfavorably vs. the Patriots when a Vinny Testaverde fumble was overturned).
Two, while the rule gets called a “dynasty starter,” who’s to say the Patriots wouldn’t have won in 2003 and 2004? Those were great teams. The Pats went 9-7 in 2002 and bounced back. That gets forgotten.
Three, why on God’s green Earth did Al Davis get rid of John Gruden? If the NFL messed with the Raiders as much as Davis professed – and if Oakland was otherwise destined to win Super Bowl 36 as most Raiders fans would swear – why trade a potential champion coach to the Buccaneers? Worse yet, why replace him with Bill Callahan, aka Lil’ Gruden? That’s not New England’s fault.
Lastly, I learned something that only a small amount of people discuss, including my colleague Bruce Allen. Raiders defensive back Eric Allen eavesdropped on Brady and former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis along the sideline. The Raiders knew the play. Ahem…
Hello? The Raiders knew the goddam play.
I’m not all that concerned about the gamesmanship of Allen’s move. If Weis and Brady said it loudly enough for Allen to take advantage, so be it. But for the love of all decency, the Raiders have the gall to complain about officiating on a play that they knew in advance? A play where the defense covered the receivers and blitzed Brady’s right side (which would be his blind side with the receivers lined up on the left) to counteract the offensive plan? Does Charles Woodson blitz and knock the ball out of Brady’s hand without Allen overhearing the call and telling his coaches? Hard to say.
But what’s easier to say is that, to fixate on one particular play and call it the reason for each franchise’s fortune is subtracting credit from the Patriots and deflecting blame from the Raiders.
Bill Of Rights (And Wrongs): You may not agree with all of comedian Bill Burr’s takes during his October 9 appearance on Quick Slants the podcast, but he and NBC Sports Boston pundit Tom E. Curran have a good time. Definitely worth a listen, whether you’re a fan of Burr, the Patriots, or curmudgeons in general.
And now, for these commercial messages…
Head Games: I can name the pitch for the new movie The Foreigner in four words. “Taken starring Jackie Chan.” One matinee ticket, please!
Hell’s Bells: Still can’t wrap my head around the concept of eating breakfast at Taco Bell. The new naked egg taco isn’t helping. If I’m not a) in my 20s, b) intoxicated, or c) a combination of a and b, it’s not happening.
Even Flo? Has Progressive Insurance decided to stop using Flo in their ads? According to compare.com (I’m not sure what that is, either) Stephanie Courtney will continue on as Flo, adding to her 94 appearances. Apparently the company is trying to show their human side by delving into the characters that surround Flo.
That sounds odd coming from a corporation whose most human-like spokesperson has always been a gecko.
Such A Supple Wrist: An unintentionally funny Cosentyx commercial features three people dealing with joint pain. Not a humorous subject, but while Mitzi makes sandwiches and Ron plays pinball, Joni – who appears to be the oldest of the bunch – goes through an extensive workout at the gym. So if you take this drug, you can open a giant jar of mayonnaise, press a button, or go through a 45-minute pilates workout. Interesting choices, Cosantyx.
Her Name Might Be Flo: My favorite commercial of the season has appeared recently – the grandma who praises McDonald’s for making buttermilk crispy tenders and giving her the free time she craves. She plays the first McDonald’s character I’ve cared about in a while. (In fact, I can’t remember the last time I cared about someone in a McD’s commercial, save for the girl in this Japanese anime recruitment video.)
Upcoming Opponent Mascot Etymology: “Jet” originates from the Latin “jacere,” to throw. Its evolution includes – and I can’t believe this is true – the French word for “to throw,” which is “jeter.” Yup. Jeter. You’d think the Jets would be more overrated.
Upcoming Opponent Site Etymology: New York was named after the Duke of York in 1664 after England took over the region (then New Amsterdam) from the Dutch.
Pats at Jets, 1 p.m. Sunday. Another piece to a still-evolving puzzle.
Chris Warner stayed out in the sun so long last weekend that he got sunburned through his shirt. (It’s an old shirt.) You can console him at email@example.com or @cwarn89.