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Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 3: Patriots vs. Raiders

Things to consider while learning what to do when your teenager says, "I've got to you this really funny Tik Tok ...":

--The most encouraging thing about this one, other than, you know, the whole "beating a quality opponent by 23 (minus a garbage time score)" thing is that we're three games into the season and we've already seen three totally iterations of the Patriots offense. Week 1 the game plan was built around the modern run option and using Cam Newton as the primary running back. Week 2 was a straight up pro-style passing game and then going to the power run game on the goal line. Against the Raiders it was something entirely different. And while it took a while to get going, it might have been the best Josh McDaniels' offense has looked so far.

--I mean, I hate to keep looking at the 2020 team through the prism of 18 years of Tom Brady. And maybe eventually we can move on and the comparisons will stop. But for now at least we are still caught up in the wake left behind by his mighty presence. And what we saw Sunday against the Raiders was the result of a transition the Pats franchise started to make after the 2017 season. Where they made a conscious effort to move away from a system that relied on a guy in his 40s throwing for 300 yards and three touchdowns and without it there was no secondary way to win. So they drafted offensive linemen and power backs in order to overwhelm defenses designed to stop the very spread attack the Patriots had themselves had made popular. Essentially Bill Belichick got his offense to start downing the protein shakes, hit the gym and get its pump on. That helped them win the Super Bowl in 2018. And two years later they're lifting more weights, adding more mass and grunting louder. While the protein drinks get bigger and the shoulder straps on their tank top get skinnier.

--Yesterday the initial plan looked to be all about coming out in single back sets, creating flow in one direction or the other, catch Las Vegas' defenders looking into the backfield and then attacking the backside of the formation. And it worked like the Raiders had hacked into the Patriots emails. They were ready for all of it. The Raiders defenders were getting vertical penetration, getting in the passing lanes and disrupting the timing. There was just no flow or rhythm whatsoever to what the McOffense was trying to do. The one play that looked well executed was that 3rd & 5 when they ran a 3-man route combo with N'Keal Harry up the seam, Damiere Byrd doing an 8-yard out cut under him and Julian Edelman running a shallow crosser under them that would've gone for a 1st if Travon Mullen didn't close on Edelman and get his hand on the ball. 

--From there it just got worse. Cam Newton wasn't finding anyone open, the ball wasn't coming out. Maurice Hurst blew up Rex Burkhead on a sweep. A well set up screen to Burkhead went nowhere when he bobbled the ball. Maxx Crosby picked up a sack when Newton held the ball too long. Later there was a backside screen to Byrd in heavy traffic that had no chance of getting more than the 2-yard loss it picked up. It was like the first day full squad practices when the defense is light years ahead of the offense. 

--Then that worse got worst. Newton forced one to Edelman triple covered on a seam route that should've been picked. Then he made sure of it on his next attempt, by staring down Jonathan Abram and making sure the ball got into his hands for the pick. It's possible that pass was meant for Devin Asiasi (which if true would've been the first target of his career so far), but the throw looked like it was intended for the guy who caught it. It was by far the worst decision Newton has made in New England. I half expected him to put his head down and run a lap. Or quarterback the Jets. Fortunately, that was rock bottom and they figured it out from there. 

--In that way that sometimes your car has to really fall apart for the mechanic to diagnose it - after you've reached the limit of your Michael Winslow-like abilities to imitate the sounds it's been making - that third possession was the one that got McDaniels to say, "There's yer problem, lady" and get busy fixing it. And the additive he put in the tank was J.J. Taylor brand octane booster. Which worked like jet fuel.

--The Raiders had been loading the tackle box, so McDaniels attacked their edges with a 5-foot-6, 185 pound ball of undrafted rookie free agent. An outside zone which Taylor finished off by driving Hurst back three yards to pick up nine. Taylor on a draw play behind Jakob Johnson for a 1st, which Newton sold with a pump fake. A toss to Taylor that went for five with a face mask penalty tacked on. (While Taylor had both arms wrapped completely around the ball as Ivan Fears' heart glowed through his chest like E.T.'s.) Then a reverse to Isaiah Zuber picked up 13. Mixed in was a nice "levels" concept throw to Edelman running a 12-yard in cut from the seam while Harry ran a shallower in cut from the outside, when the coverage came up on Harry, he went to the deep man for 15 on a perfect throw. (Note that later they ran an almost identical "levels" where the coverage all stayed back with Edelman, but Newton ignored the wide open Harry underneath and forced it into Edelman. So that concept will work, but the decision making has to improve.)

--The drive stalled and the Pats settled for the field goal, but the adjustment had been made. It continued on the fifth possession, with no less than three Taylor edge runs, including one sweep with Burkhead as the lone running back where Taylor came from the H-back slot The Pats caught a defense packing the box like it was the Supreme Court and they're whichever political party you hate. So they attacked them outside and forced them to widen their horizon. And when they did, the Patriots spent the rest of the game gashing them up the middle with powers and inside zones. In battle terms, they sent the cavalry around to force Las Vegas to defend their flanks. And once they did, the Pats concentrated their firepower on a full frontal assault. The center of the line collapsed and the New England infantry went pouring through. 

--And while we're on the subject of lines, the Patriots offensive front deserves most of the credit for this one. Particularly the interior. Joe Thuney was playing center for the first time in his career. Michael Onwenu had seen a decent amount of snaps, mostly coming in as an extra blocker/3rd tight end in Jumbo short yardage formations. And they were facing a Raiders' D-line that includes one of the better defensive tackles in the league in Jonathan Hankins and which carries a bandolier of twists, stunts tackle-end crosses ("TEX") and other assorted games they like to shoot at you. And the Pats interior line held up. Thuney had no issues whatsoever with the center exchange. There didn't seem to be any glaring miscommunications or blown assignments like you might expect with a fifth round rookie at left guard and you left guard playing out of position. On the outside Jermaine Eluemenor continues to have lapses in the passing game because he doesn't move especially well. Crosby's second sack was just a straight up speed rush in which he got both his shoulders outside of Eluemenor and Newton had no chance. But Eluemenor is very capable run blocker and 250 rushing yards is 250 rushing yards, so this is no time to pick nits. 

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--To that point, you have to appreciate the job Cole Popovich and Carmen Bricillo did with all those movable parts moving. The coaches who were hired to replace Dante Scarnecchia like two kids pulling the Totem Pole Trench Coat gag did a very Scarnecchia job of having their guys prepared. Particularly on those outside runs that require a lot of coordination between the playside blockers and the pulling guards. Like they say a lot at the Old Coaches Home, pull with a purpose, not just pulling for pulling's sake. And it looked to me as though Onwenu knew his assignments, whether it was the safety/OLB coming up in run force or sealing off the edge guy (sometimes referred to a "log" block or the "wrapper" if you're so inclined. All in all a nice performance by the rookie who might very well be auditioning for Thuney's job next year. 

--One example of coordinated blocking in particular had me pulling the ol' guard, ifyouknowwhatImean, and it set up the second field goal. It was a 2nd & 6 from the Oakland Las Vegas 27. The ball went to Burkhead off the right guard, behind Eluemenor, Asiasi and Zuber. Eluemenor got around Cory Littleton to seal him off, Asiasi make the kickout block on the end (Crosby I think, but don't quote me), Zuber ran the corner off and it went for 17 to set up a 1st & goal. That's a fill in tackle, a rookie tight end and a roster bubble substitute just being overpowering at the point of attack. Defend that, rest of the league. 

--And for what it's worth, going into this game Isaiah Wynn hadn't been charged with as much as a single QB pressure. I'll be curious to see if he gets one for the play where Newton slid away from Ferrell (as Wynn pinned him to the ground) and scrambled for 21. But regardless, this guy is giving us everything we wanted when he was taken No. 23 overall in 2018. He set up that touchdown just before the half by bouncing up to the second level to take out Nicholas Morrow on a toss to Burkhead that put them in the red zone. He's moving well. He's fundamentally sound. He doesn't draw flags. In short, people have forgotten his very existence, which is the hallmark of a good left tackle's existence.

--I imagine the consensus today is that Burkhead's best play was taking that swing pass from Newton and high jumping over Nevin Lawson for the score. And that's a fine choice. But I'm going with his second touchdown, when on a 1st & goal, with the Raiders loading the LOS, he took the handoff and contorted his body through the whole left side of their defense like an thief making his way down a hallway filled with lasers. Agree to disagree on which was better, but not knowing which to choose is a champagne problem.

--All of which might just be me doing a disservice to Sony Michel. But I prefer to think I was building up to him. I still prefer him running behind a fullback, but with or without Jakob Johnson he was as quick to the hole, decisive in his cuts and burstier when he gets to the secondary as we have seen him in his career. And I'm including that three game stretch with six TDs and 116 YPG he had in the postseason as a rookie. To make probably my third metaphor about this game plan, after McDaniels threw all those jabs with Taylor and Burkhead, Michel was the haymaker that put the Raiders on the canvas. 

--Keep in mind that next week should mean the return of both Damien Harris, who was expected to be the No. 1 power back on this team, and James White, the best receiving back they've had since Kevin Faulk. So those are two more elements that will be added to an already shape-shifting offense.

--To me the one defender who stood out the most without probably even being noticed was Shalique Calhoun. And I was saying this before he forced a fumble in the end zone for a defensive touchdown. I will actually posit the theorem that he made the play that turned the entire game in New England's favor. And it came on the first possession of the 2nd half. The Raiders had just gotten seven at the end of the half. They'd driven it down to the Pats 22 and were facing a 3rd & 6. Jim Nantz and Tony Romo gave Chase Winovich all the credit for pressuring Derek Carr, but it was Calhoun who had him by the ankle and forced him to check it down to Jalen Richard, who promptly got dropped where he stood for no gain. The Raiders then missed the field goal. The Pats then promptly marched down field for Burkhead's second TD. So what could've been 14 straight points by Vegas giving them a 17-13 lead became 20-10 Patriots. And they never looked back. 

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--Besides that Calhoun forced an earlier fumble. Spent a lot of the game spying Carr. And was the prime example of a guy who impacts a game hugely without putting up huge numbers on the box score. 

--Just in case there are old school Raiders fans butthurt about that fumble they think Josh Jacobs recovered and can't shut up about the Tuck Rule, you've come to the wrong place for sympathy. Even if the officials blew that one, the Tuck Rule was 100% the correct call. Besides, Google "Ray Hamilton roughing the passer" and read up on the worst officiated playoff game of all time. An absolute bag job of the highest order. I say again if I was Bruce Wayne, that game in Oakland was my parents being shot in an alley. It turned me into the dark, brooding vigilante you know me to be. 

--I'm convinced that Belichick has determined the exact line on the human face that a mask can cover adequately enough so that he doesn't get fined:

It's somewhere about 80% of the way up from the chin and 20% below the bottom lip, and he is not going to go beneath that if he doesn't have to. Like Tony Dungy and Bill Polian and Mike Tomlin and Rex Ryan and so many others have said, he's always going to find that line and stand just behind it.

--The major question for the Pats defense in this was how they were going to handle one of the best tight ends in the game, Darren Waller. The short answer is "extremely well," as he finished with two unmemorable catches for nine unremarkable yards and had no impact on the game. The longer, hopefully more interesting answer is they put a variety of defenders on him. Mostly playing man coverage, but making Carr guess who had the assignment. Mostly early on it was Adrian Phillips in that Big Nickel role which is a staple of this 4-2-5 base defense and which the notorious film room geek has excelled at. Joejuan Williams had Waller a number of times. As did Brooks. And late, when the game was out of reach, they put Kyle Dugger on him as a kind of training exercise. An "If you can dodge a wrench you can dodge a ball" kind of thing. At one point Dugger took on Waller who had a full head of steam and stood him right up, despite punching 35 pounds above his weight class. All of which is good practice for Dugger and the entire secondary with Travis Kelce up next. For years, tight ends and receiving backs were the bane of this defense's existence. And they might be getting turned into a strength. But I don't want to  mush things by saying that in public. 

--The key to keeping Las Vegas from making this game close was the red zone. They failed to get in the end zone on three out of their first four visits inside the 20 and that was ballgame. It's always interesting to see when defenses switch from "red zone" to "goal line," which are two entirely different schemes. For the Patriots, it's more or less the 10 yard line. From the 11-20 they tend to play their usual man with a single safety. But cross that boundary and they drop everyone down, double up the top two receivers and generally get more aggressive than Boston truck drivers. It worked as they kept Carr in uncomfortable down & distances and forced him into checkdowns and throwaways. 

--Speaking of aggressiveness, Winovich is an every down defender now and every ounce the high-energy, testosterone-fuel enthusiasm junkie we hoped he'd be when they drafted him. You know that No. 50 Mike Vrabel jersey that you converted into a No. 50 Rob Ninkovich? Well you can safely update into a No. 50 Winovich. But better yet, buy a fresh one, ya cheap bastard. He's worth the investment.

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--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote: "I'm Rex, founder of the Rex Kwan Do self-defense system! After one week with me in my dojo, you'll be prepared to defend yourself with the STRENGTH of a grizzly, the reflexes of a PUMA, and the wisdom of a man." - Rex, "Napoleon Dynamite"

--Speaking of speaking of aggressiveness (I just pulled off the rare double segue), there was this from Harry:

A stop route, spinning away from one tackle, slipping another and dragging a defender like a plowhorse for 27. There remains a weird negativity toward the guy from probably most people I talk to. The most accurate thing I can compare it to is the general attitude toward Wynn and Michel. People get an impression that a young player is injury prone or soft whatever. And the hardest thing in the world to do is disabuse them of that notion. But the fact remains he's tied with Edelman for the team lead in receptions, is second in receiving yards, is second only to Burkhead in YAC, leads their receivers in broken tackles and (knock wood) hasn't had a drop. Keep metaphorically sliding off the abstract bench when Harry proverbially is talking to you, but he's only played in 11 games and is becoming a player before our eyes. Cut him some slack. 

--When Newton slid off that bench, it showed the phone behind him with the green tape marked "ERNIE." I'm all against government intrusion in our lives. But I'd give anything for NSA to wiretap that phone and let me listen in.

--Dominos is running ads for their cheeseburger pizza. Which differs from their hamburger pizza how, exactly? 

--Lane Johnson's team punted for a tie. Cassius Marsh still can't set an edge. So I ask them, does this team look like it's having fun to you? 

That is, until the McCourty Twins came over and bagged them with the "That's enough, you kids. Knock off the horseplay and get back to work" thing, which they all responded to like they were in trouble. I don't know. It looks like they're enjoying football to me. 

--It can only get better when White comes back next week. 

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Godspeed.