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Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 11: Patriots vs. Eagles

Things to consider while appreciating  Bill Belichick capping off a road win with the dry, subtle, rapier wit of an Oscar Wilde:

--Look, I'll admit there are issues here. And I have every intention of getting into them. But not before we acknowledge that this was a hell of a win. The kind of game they used to grind out all the time in 2001-04. Especially in 2003. But have been rare in the decade and a half since when we've just gotten used to Tom Brady burying all this team's flaws under a pile of scoreboard numbers. They went into a tough place to play against a first place team, shut them down and won by a touchdown. We can argue about their Artistic Merit score and debate whether they landed enough jumps, but this isn't Figure Skating. And a team that went 3-5 on the road last year shouldn't take a game like this and a 9-1 record for granted. Enjoy this. Belichick says they were having fun, I'm gonna have fun.

--So with that in mind, yes, this offense has problems. Ones that are a legit concern given we're 5/8ths into the season and it still looks like a bad day in the first week of training camp. But ones that aren't unexpected when you consider the ridiculous roster turmoil. They showed the graphic midgame about how Brady has hit a career high 17 different receivers. But the turnover actually goes way back to the spring, when they began signing and almost signing and releasing skill position guys every other day. Do I need to remind anyone abut Braxton Berrios or that Danny Etling was trying to make it as a wideout? Ever since the Super Bowl the tight ends and receiver position has been addressed with the coaching equivalent of the IT guy telling you to turn it off and then turn it back on again and let's see if that solves it.

--I'll be the 100 millionth person to point out Brady did not look particularly sharp if we can first agree that he hadn't seen a clean pocket since he hung up his pants in the locker room. I had a few people Tweet and friends text me that he was showing “Happy Feet,” like that's a bad thing. I responded that I was glad he did. Because with that protection, if he had Sad Feet it would've been facing 3rd & 27s all night. Or worse, he would've been facing the ceiling tiles of a hospital ER. When on every Brady drop back looks like he's trying to complete passes in the 5:15 Braintree Red Line train out of South Station, let's not fixate on the emotional state of his feet and address the very real problems on the offensive line.

--My biggest worry going into the Super Bowl I Was Trying Not to Mention was that the Eagles would shuffle Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox around the line like the Queen in a 3-Card Monte game, looking to create mismatches. They did. And ultimately Graham's penetration on the interior caused the strip sack that short circuited what could've been a classic Brady comeback. Well right now it's not hard to find the mismatch on the Patriots O-line. It's Marshall Newhouse. And no matter who they lined up opposite him – Graham, Cox or Derek Barnett – they enjoyed a huge advantage. I don't want to be too harsh on the man since he's a backup swing tackle forced into a full time role protecting the perfectly-shaped backside of the most important man on the planet. But in all honesty he hasn't been up for it since day one. When he's not missing assigments on overload blitzes, he's getting beaten off the edge on iso blocks. Or getting bull rushed back into his quarterback like he's wearing Heelies. If I wanted to play Judge, Jerry and Executioner, I'd give him a derrogatory nickname like Outhouse. Or Shithouse. Milhouse, maybe. But I won't. He's a guy who's simply been asked to do more than he's capable of. And besides, Isaiah Wynn is about to fly in on the Millennium Falcon and save the day. So there's no reason to be mean about it. But this experiment can't end soon enough.

--And hopefully the addition of Wynn will have an impact all across the offensive line because not only do I hear spooky theremin music every time Brady takes a five-step drop or has to hold the ball for more than three seconds, the running game is practically non-existent. Still. There were some key individual blocks along the way. Ted Karras clearing out Anthony Rush and Shaq Mason coming off a double team of Cox to crack down on Malcolm Jenkins filling the hole on James White's two-point conversion. 

--Late in the 4th, Marcus Cannon got outside Graham with a hook block to get Sony Michel free for a nice gain. But I'm afraid the days of them lining up in an obvious run look and simply pounding the ball against a defense that's ready for – like that final possession when a 1st down there would've iced the game (with Jermaine Eluemunor as the third tight end and Elandon Roberts at fullback, no less)  – are SO 2018. And not likely to come back unless Wynn is even better than advertised.

--And so, we've got Josh McDaniels scrambling to come up with something like a man who's got Gordon Ramsey screaming he's got two minutes to get everything on his plate and his Hollandaise just broke. Against the Eagles, the plan was clearly to work the edges with outside zone runs, tosses and screens. But there was never any room to operate out there. Just about every positive play involved breaking tackles. None bigger than Rex Burkhead taking a shovel pass from Brady, being perfectly squared up by Nathan Gerry for no gain, only to fight through him for 30 yards to help set up the only touchdown. But for the most part, whenever the Pats offense tried to operate outside the hashmarks it was a mess. Screens that never developed. Multiple defenders swarming to the ball. Brady chucking it into the ground on purpose. Chaos. A fight against henchmen in a Batman villain's lair. But the Patriots landed just enough punches with “BAM!” graphics across the screen to pull out the win.

--A couple of bright spots that are worth mentioning before we seque into the defense were Ben Watson and N'Keal Harry. Both finished with three receptions on four targets. Watson made the catch of the game on a seam route out of a two tight end look with Brandon Browner at H-back outside of him, laying out to haul in Brady's pass for 19. Harry's one incompletion was on a pass break up by I think Avante Maddox (I can't find where I wrote down who it was). But his receptions included a 1st down, a slipped tackle that turned a loss into five yards, and a checkdown where Brady actually wrapped up by Barnett but got the ball out to Harry on the perimeter. Neither player was a factor in the red zone. In fact, Harry came off the field on most red zone plays. Though on the 3rd & 6 where they settled for their first field goal, when Brady scrambled and threw the ball away, Harry did have a step on Rasul Douglas on a crossing route. But Brady was never able to plant his feet and get it to him. As debuts go, it wasn't Drew Bledsoe targeting Terry Glenn 17 times in Week 1 of 1996. But it's a promising start.

--One more thing, about McDaniels in the red zone. Typically we see the Patriots attack the end zone in the safe spaces. High balls along the back line and the boundaries, or low along the goal line. Where it's either going to be caught or incomplete. We're seeing a disturbing amount of risky throws forced into tight windows, like the one to Mohamed Sanu that should've been picked by Rodney McLeod. I can't remember the last time they exploited a corner with a Julian Edelman pivot route or one of those quick scrapes along the goal line Danny Amendola excelled at, both of which are almost uncoverable. Part of the red zone ineffectiveness is on Brady, to be sure. Some of it is very much on Edelman's drop. But I think a lot of it is on the plays not being designed to do what has been working for this team for decades now. The hope is that with Sanu, Harry and Watson they'll have the big targets they need to attack the margins and free up the Edelmans, Whites and Phillip Dorsetts underneath and start bringing those touchdown manufacturing jobs back to northeastern America.

--But that call for the Edelman double pass touchdown was vintage McDaniels. Showing the balls of a brass monkey, the willingness to try something unorthodox in a huge situation, taking advantage of the Eagles' safeties' aggressiveness, and putting something on tape other teams are going to have to account for that he can now use to his advantage. We can only hope whatever knocked Dorsett out of the game is only temporary. He's made himself invaluable.

--My apologies to the defense for circumnavigating the globe before finally getting to them when they absolutely deserve credit for winning this game. That one touchdown drive that lasted longer than the entire “Hobbit” trilogy notwithstanding. this was a vintage game by them. And a huge bounce back, coming as it did against a quirky, scheme-driven attack one game after they got dismantled by a quirky, scheme-driven attack. And it shouldn't be overlooked by anyone that the Pats faced this same Eagles Run-Pass Option offense just 28 games ago and got overrun like 1940 France. So this performance deserves to be celebrated.

--Without taking too deep a dive into the RPO, at it's most basic it's about the quarterback's decision: Give or Throw. “Run” can also be an option, but it's not a major part of it. The decision is based on reading the strong safety in order to count how many defenders are in the box. If he's staying home, that means a six man box and you hand off for the inside zone run. If he's dropping down to fill against the run, that means a seven man box and you throw. For that, Doug Pederson in particular schemes a lot of Bubble/Flat combinations to take advantage of the defense's lack of numbers outside. Which is relatively rare in RPO offenses. But it works for them.

--So it seemed to me the Defensive Coordinator firm of Belichick, Mayo & Belichick did everything they could to not give Carson Wentz an immediate post-snap tell. They played a lot of single high safety with Duron Harmon in centerfield and Devin McCourty disguising whether he was falling back in coverage or dropping down in run force. The approach was more along the lines of what they did in Super Bowl LIII, in which they didn't their hand until after the snap to confuse Jared Goff. As opposed to what they did in The Super Bowl I Have Now Mentioned Twice, in which they laid down helplessly on their backs and exposed their soft underbelly for Nick Foles to disembowel.

--This was maybe their most interesting game plan of the year because usually you start figuring out what they're doing by identifying who Stephon Gilmore's covering and work from there. This time there were no specific assignments. They mixed and matched more than they ever have. I'm only speculating, but my guess is that, in the big Stratego game that is pass coverage, they figured that Gilmore, Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones and JC Jackson each have a higher rank than Nelson Agholor, Jordan Matthews or JJ Arcega-Whiteside so it doesn't matter who matched up with whom.

--Instead they focused on doubling Zach Ertz, while disguising where the extra help was coming from as well as they could, hoping Wentz would miss a dropping linebacker or backside safety. It was a solid plan, even if Ertz's nine receptions for almost 100 yards might indicate otherwise. Especially when you consider Pat Chung, who would normally have a guy like Ertz on every down, was sitting home in his (hopefully drug free) home on Lake Winnepesaukee.

--It felt like on those first two Philly scoring drives, the defensive front was playing with kind of a passive/containment style, similar to what they did to keep Lamar Jackson in the pocket last game. And whether it was by design or coincidence, once Lane Johnson came out of the game for good, they went back to their old selves. Reaching Aggressiveness Level: Telemarketer. The tackles began winning the gap battles. Miles Sanders and Boston Scott couldn't find run lanes or cutbacks. That put the Eagles in a lot of passing downs and we got a lot of the one- and zero-down linemen blitz-happy fronts we've become accustomed to.

--No pass rush they had was better than a 3rd & 15 late in the 3rd when Dont'a Hightower blasted right past Halapoulivaati Vaitai on the outside and he and Kyle Van Noy met in the backfield and made themselves a Wentzwich. Unless it was Roberts and Jamie Collins crossing on a double A-gap blitz to force a punt on the first drive after that 9:30 marathon one. Though let's not sleep on Lawrence Guy forcing Wentz to fumble after simply overpowering Isaac Seumalo. Actually don't ask me to choose a favorite. I love all the Patriots sacks equally. Yes, I know how that sounds and I said what I mean.

--The two most overlooked Patriots Front 7 players right now are Guy and John Simon, who is just one of those rock solid, fundamentally sound players you have to pay extra attention to before you fully appreciate him. But I bet his tape is like Film Room porn to the coaches. Try to notice how often he gets a hand on a pass, stops a quarterback from scrambling for a 1st down or jumps into a passing lane to force a QB to go further through his progressions and his game really grows on you.

--I'm not saying the officials made the wrong call on that disputed Jones interception/Dallas Goedert touchdown play. What I am saying is that the league has spent years defining and redefining what a catch is, and I understand it less now than I ever did. They took something that used to be pretty simple and universally understood turned it into Modern Art.

--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote: “That is one bad hat, Harry.” - Chief Brody, “Jaws”

--Congratulations to Jim Nantz and Tony Romo. For a while there I was worried they were going to be fined for not meeting their contractually obligated quota of Philly Cheesesteak references. Way to pull it out late in the game, guys.

--It's legitimate to worry about Edelman's proclivity for following the spectacular, improbable catch by dropping a gimmee. But let's give him a pass since he not only threw for a touchdown, he recorded the rare Interception Broken Up (IBU).

--I should make mention of how the frustrations on offense were really grinding Brady's gears in the postgame. He has every reason to be. The MVP of this one was Jake Bailey, who, save for that one bad kick, was an absolute unit unto himself. A 47.6 yard average. Nothing returnable. Six of his eight kicks inside the 20. Between Bailey and the defense, the Patriots were crushing the field position battle. And with all those drives that started at midfield and ended at lower middle field, if my quarterback wasn't frustrated, it would be a scandal.

--By the same token, if the coach is satisfied, I am satisfied.

--I mentioned the problems on offense but also the 2003 Patriots for a reason. That team rushed for only 3.4 yards per attempt, the lowest ever by a Super Bowl champion. This team is one of only two in the league with a 9-1 record. The team they just beat on the road was playing their best ball in a year and a half and just crushed a very good Bills team in Buffalo. Look around the league at all the contenders like Kansas City, the LA Rams and Dallas sitting at 6-4. And remember the terrible losses last year like the ones at Jacksonville, Detroit and Tennessee and tell me again how hacked off you are about an offense that's still coming together. Yes, they're still a work in progress. But I for one will take the situation we're in and feel pretty ducking good about it.

--Bye weeks are a necessary evil, but they still blow. It feels like forever since they had a home game. Bring on the Cowboys and let's kick it off already.