–It hit me early on that the common theme of this was experimentation. For both teams. The sort of experimentation you’d come to expect in a game with a 14-point home underdog. For the Bills it was of the “It’s crazy, but it’s just crazy enough to to work” variety. For the Patriots it was the kind that comes when you know you got this, so it’s the opportunity to work on something new. Buffalo was Mythbusters testing to see if McGyver could’ve really fixed a plane with duct tape. The Patriots were an established comic doing a freebie at a small club to test out new material for a Netflix special.
–For the Bills, it was borne out of desperation. Their offense has been moving the ball with all the intensity and firepower of the Honduran caravan. With none of its relentlessness. So Brian Daboll gathered up his spare parts and built a contraption to see if it would work. And it did. For about half a drive.
–He came out in the Wildcat and ran it with LeSean McCoy who picked up a 1st down. Then ran it with Chris Ivory for another 1st. Another direct snap to McCoy was stuffed for no gain. So they ran a reverse fleaflicker where Derek Anderson tried to hit Charles Clay but Pat Chung never bit on the fake and stayed with him, forcing an overthrow. Then an additional springboard was installed so they could pull off the Triple Lindy.
–And that was all just on the opening drive. But by the time they’d crossed midfield, the Patriots were onto it. They made the adjustments they needed to. Like they’ve been doing against Wildcat teams since Tony Sparano (RIP) sprung it on them 10 years ago, they simply crashed their ends to occupy blockers and take away the outside options. Elandon Roberts and this week’s Antwan Harris “Who the Hell is That Guy?” Award Winner, John Simon started selling out and disrupted the flow of the outside zone rushes. At that point Daboll went back to something more or less resembling a pro offense with a conventional pass intended for Kelvin Benjamin, but Kyle Van Noy beat Russell Bodine to force a bad pass. Then the Bills just reverted back to their factory setting of generally ineffective awfulness, and it all made sense again.
–For Josh McDaniels, it was less desperation and more scientific curiosity. He was tinkering in his garage. Trying to see if he could make something useful out of a 6-2, 220 lb wide receiver who doesn’t run routes especially well and catches passes like a guy swatting a bee out of his face. So he tried him at running back. In this case, giving 10 carries to Cordarelle Patterson wasn’t so much Alex Cora putting Christian Vasquez at first base as it was guys in my neighborhood in Weymouth making any household object they could into a hash pipe. Coke cans. Beer bottles. Apples. Their grandmother’s ashes. Anything. I’m sure at least one of those guys could’ve made a bong out of Cordarelle Patterson. But based on last night, no one could turn him into an NFL running back. He runs too high and lacks the natural instincts to find seams before they open up on the interior line. Get him in space and he’s a factor, like that 22-yarder when they got him around the end, with James Develin sealing off the outside linebacker and Julian Edelman throwing a nice upfield block on Phillip Gaines. Put him in those situations where he can do his “Kick Returner Powers, ACTIVATE” thing and he’s fine. But a tailback he is not.
–Another wrinkle McDaniels added was using Gronk as a fullback, though I’m not sure he went to that more than three or four times, and at least one of those was him motioning in. Then of course were the times he utilized Tom “Road Grader” Brady’s skills in the power running game. Breaking tackles up the middle and that sternum-cracking block he threw on Lorenzo Alexander to spring Edelman on a jet sweep. That’s exactly the kind of intimidating, old school physicality that will break the will of a defense. Somebody do us a favor and put a neckroll on that man.
–Speaking of which, Tremaine Edmunds is 6-feet, 5-inches and 250 lbs of pure muscle and Creatine who was taken with the 16th overall pick. He hit Develin with a full head of 20-year-old, freakishly athletic steam. Not only did he not slow Jimmy Neckroll down, he concussed himself in the attempt. Before too long it’s going to come out that Develin is really a mutant. He’s Homo Superior.
–Of course for all the crushing body shots dished out by Brady and Develin, it took forever for the McOffense to resemble anything we’re used to seeing. By the 3rd quarter I was ready to detour the Red Sox plane to Buffalo so Chris Sale could scream at them and remind them who the hell they were facing.
–For the most part it seemed to me Buffalo’s secondary was content to sit back in a deep cover-2 shell and rely on a 4-man rush to win battles and force the ball to come out fast. It felt like Brady was looking high-to-low and the intermediate/deep routes were either taken away or didn’t have time to develp so he had to rely on the check downs to James White and Edelman until something opened up. Finally, two things did and they had their only touchdown drive of the night. The only one they’d need, as it turned out.
–The first was the pass to Edelman that got it to midfield. That was an empty set 3X2, with Chris Hogan essentially at H-back, Minitron outside of him and Gronk in the slot on the other side. Hogan and Edelman ran a combo route that I’m pretty sure has a call of “Oregon” in their playbook. It’s basically a “Levels” concept call, the kind of thing Tom Moore’s Colts lived off of. Hogan released to the flat at about six yards and Edelman ran a square out behind him, at about 14 yards. The play is designed to read the DB in between. If he jumps the shallow route, go deep. If he drifts back to the deep guy, go short. In this case, the corner came down on Hogan leaving Edelman open in front of Micha Hyde for 26 yards.
–The other key play was the ball up the sidelines to Hogan that got them to 1st & goal. Brady came up under center with White as the lone back. He caught Buffalo in a 3-3 stack (shades of the Ryan family defensive front) with Alexander up on the line at Will. So he audibled to shotgun, brought White up in blitz protection and found Gaines iso’d on Hogan and hit him with a perfect back shoulder throw.
–THAT was the McOffense we’re accustomed to. Hopefully something clicked in that one drive that they can build off of. Because as ridiculous as it sounds considering the positively stoopid (as you youngsters like to say it) points they’ve been putting up, I don’t feel like this thing as even begun to approach its maximum output.
–One thing we can take away from this one is the importance of Sony Michel. Or Dion Lewis, if you’re feeling nostalgic. This offense might not be built around the running game, but it’s an essential element. When it lacks the ability to put the defense into a passing set and hand it off or get them to load the box and then spread them out, it’s playing left handed. And without the threat of the run to set up play action, it’s like trying to draw a hand-turkey with Jason Pierre-Paul’s left hand. You can do it, but it’s just never going to look right.
–Gronk is clearly not anywhere close to being healthy. He just doesn’t have that burst off the line where he gets two strides into his release and even corners can’t keep up. That catch where he pulled the ball off Gaines’s helmet like grandpa finding a quarter behind your ear was vintage him. But I’ll be pleasantly stunned if he doesn’t need more games off as the season progresses.
–Defensively, Brian Flores played it as straight up as you’ll ever see. Just your basic vanilla looks you’d expect to see in the first preseason game. He kept Stephon Gilmore on Benjamin. Put Jason McCourty for the most part on Zay Jones. Played the usual base nickel with Chung on Charles Clay. Nothing exotic. Nothing elaborate. If Flores was Bob Ross, this would’ve been a painting of a lake with mountains in the background, trees on one side and some big rocks on the other. There’s no reason to get fancy when you can just sit back, relax and wait for the Bills to beat themselves.
–I find myself saying this a lot, but it never gets old: Van Noy came up huge once again. With more responsibility since Dont’a Hightower was out, he had the aforementioned pressure to kill the opening drive. On the final possession, with the Bills desperate and Flores going for the jugular, he ran a twist behind Keionta Davis for the sack, as Davis drew Marcus Murphy and Van Noy shot the gap untouched. In between, right after the half, he sliced through the A-gap to blow up an outside zone run and Nicholas Grigsby finished it off for the loss. He quick-twitched Dion Dawkins, got him flat-footed and came around him (out of an 8-man box with a single high safety) for the strip sack when it was still a 9-6 game. He did give up a 24-yard catch to McCoy but beyond that was his usual exceptional self.
–But I can’t possibly pay Kyle Van Noy the respect that Booger McFarland did when he called him – and I wrote it down so I could quote him accurately – a “situational player in this Patriots defense.” That is high praise indeed for a 4-down, green dot-wearing linebacker whose among the league leaders in snaps. In other news, Aaron Rodgers is a situational player in the Packers offense.
–But that’s so Booger. Actually, it’s the entire Monday Night crew. Saying this is the worst MNF team ever assembled is like saying this is the weakest SNL cast of all time; just because we’ve said it before doesn’t make it not true this time. Booger sits on his WALL-E hover chair working the phrase “in the National Football League” into every sentence like a kid trying to pad a report on the book he didn’t read to get to the 500-word minimum. Jason Witten makes an observation and is so proud of himself he repeats it at least three times like he wants you to know he just tied his shoes for the first time. Joe Tessitore somehow took his Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl-level skills to the sweetest gig in all of broadcasting. Only in America.
–One last point and I’ll get off this. But I went back and checked and you did not imagine it. They spent a good couple of minutes pointing out that Tom Brady was not a first round draft pick and became the biggest winner in his sport. And Brady, Belichick and Mr. Kraft have worked well together. In case these key points have somehow eluded you for the last 20 years or so. It made you long for the days of Joe Buck saying Springsteen was at home watching the World Series.
–Getting back to the thing about comics working out new material: I was hosting a show in Boston once when Steven Wright showed up to do a set getting ready for one of his HBO specials. And naturally, he crushed. Then afterwards he came all the way across the club through the crowd to tell me he really liked my stand up. I thanked him profusely and he left and the Irish Rose turned to me and said “He was really nice. Who is he again?” So I stared at her and said “Ted Williams just told me he likes the way I swing a bat.” That story has nothing whatsoever to do with what we’re talking about. I just tell the story about the time Steven Wright said I’m really funny every single chance I get.
–This Week’s Applicable Move Quote: “We’ve got to figure out a way to make this [holds up square air filter] fit into the hole for this [holds up round air filter] using nothing but that [points to table filled with random stuff].”
“OK, let’s get it organized.” – Bunch of science guys, Apollo 13
–The play off the edge continues to get better from week to week. Trey Flowers especially is improving in the run game. Toward the end of the first he tossed Clay aside with some great hand-fighting, slipped inside him and blew up a direct snap to McCoy. In the 3rd he stoned McCoy in the backfield again, this time getting inside leverage on Logan Thomas. He did take a pass between the “9” and the “8” that would’ve probably gone for six, but I’m not here to pick nits when they didn’t give up a touchdown.
–And credit to Adrian Clayborn, who was 85 yards upfield blocking at the end of Devin McCourty’s pick-6. Taking nothing away from JJ Watt, but if he did that schools would be closed today for a national day of remembrance.
–I would’ve liked to have seen a little more push from the interior of the defensive line against Bodine, John Miller and Vlad Ducasse, but there’s no beefing with the jobs Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton and Malcom Brown did occupying space against the run. When the Patriots defense is at its worst, that’s where you see the biggest issues. And they’ve cleaned that up at least.
–We’ve got yet another Duckboat parade about to begin. The Pats are 6-2. They’ve for all intents and purposes clinched the division before Halloween. And it’s Tom Brady vs. Aaron Rodgers Hype Week. Dear Lord. It’s just another one of those moments when you find yourself asking what people from say, Arizona, Utah or New York talk about all week long.