Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 1: Patriots vs. Dolphins
Things to consider while simply thanking the Almighty we've got real football back:
--Before we get into said football, I want to dig down into this gratitude thing for a bit. I was at Gillette pregame to tailgate with my buddy (and this week's Do Your Pod guest, Barstool legend Uncle Buck. And it was everything I'd been missing. The thing I envisioned during the darkest of the dark times. When what was passing for football in these parts was masked cheerleaders leading cheers in empty stadia. The 1931 Akron Pros offense. Third down passes bouncing four yards in front of receivers' feet. No tight ends. Taking knees at the ends of halves. But Sunday? It was what I'd dreamed of in the more hopeful moments. Throngs of people enjoying themselves. The smell of charcoal grills mixed with cannabis. The sounds of half drunk Massholes slurring their already barely comprehensible speech as they yelled to each other over blaring classic rock. The sight of lines at Port-o-Pottys, pop-up tents, Patriots flags, and the air filled with so many Corhole beanbags that they blacked out the sun. None of this existed a year ago. This entire scene was put into storage and remained there for the duration of the 2020 season. But at least now, we just repress that memory. Shove it deep down into our subconscious where we store things like The Super Bowl That Shall Not Be Named I & II, losing to Rex Ryan in the playoffs, Malcolm Butler crying, and Albert Haynesworth. Focus on the here and now. And appreciate the fact we have this part of our life back. And that we will never, ever, go back to the way things were before. Either off the field or on. That's my biggest takeaway from a blessed day.
--The other thing to be thankful for is the return of an actual, 21st century NFL passing attack. Without question, it's a work in progress. It needs to improve in the red zone, which was a huge area of focus from the early days of training camp. And it's not yet good enough to beat someone when they lose the turnover battle. But then few offenses are. The penalties need to be cleaned up. They had eight in all, for 84 yards. And three of them were for unnecessary roughness, which you definitely do not need. As a matter of fact, it says how much you don't need it right in the name of the penalty. But you can't have watched Mac Jones' first game the way he moved the chains, dominated the time of possession, only to be done dirty by fumbles and penalties and not come away thinking he's passed his driving test and earned his license.
--Stats are for losers. But since Jones is literally the losing quarterback, let's go to the stats. 29 for 39, 281 yards, a touchdown and no picks. A 7.2 YPA. A passer rating of 102.6. Just as solid as one of James Harrison's pecs all around. Absolutely there were a couple of plays you'd like to have back. That sack/fumble where he tried to toss it to Jonnu Smith nine yards deep in the backfield being the first. That was a play action designed to look like a counter run, with Smith coming across the formation. Byron Jones came off the edge on a corner blitz, but Smith never got to him and he got to Jones unimpeded. Then Andrew Van Ginkel (who I'm 93% certain was a character on "Fractured Fairy Tales" once) came on a delayed blitz, Jones was done for and probably should've just eaten it. But still, that was his only sack of the day. The other play he'd like a do-over on was the 3rd down from the Miami 15 when he had Jakobi Meyers open on a sprint out play and straight up missed him. Led Meyers too far and had to settle for a field goal. But when you trust a rookie to drop back 40 times (to just 30 called run plays), while throwing out of empty a lot, and those are your only operator errors? You'll take that every time.
--The problems were those aforementioned red zone stall outs. On the day the Pats converted 11-of-16 3rd downs, which is super swell. But they put together three drives of 72+ yards, and all resulted in field goals. Which is neither super nor swell. Besides that one where Jones missed Meyers, one drive was killed when an Isaiah Wynn hold negated a Damien Harris run to the Miami 1. And the other with a loss on 1st down and a throwaway on 3rd down when Smith was doubled and Kendrick Bourne couldn't shake man coverage along the boundary. My guess is they're the words "red zone" more in the meeting room today than a State Trooper working a detail outside a terminal at Logan.
--Still, Jones had some exceptional throws. None better than the one to James White. Coming off a wheel route, White got a step on his man defender, and a kid flying a drone couldn't have put it over everyone and into White's hands any more perfectly than Jones' pass:
That one was in the middle of a sequence where Jones hit Bourne for 34 yards but it was negated by a penalty by Justin Herron. Then went back to Bourne for 11 of a play action where Jones faked the handoff on Jet sweep motion and to the halfback. Then on the play after the toss into White's bucket, he left the pocket to escape pressure and hit Hunter Henry at the sticks for 9. On the final scoring drive, the one that made it 17-16, Jones has a roughness call on Mason negate a beautiful 17 yarder to Bourne at midfield. But responded by playing a nice chess match against Brian Flores, checking out of a play when the Dolphins were showing an 8-man line, so they dropped their linebackers into zone as Jones took the checkdown to White underneath for a short gain. Then, going No Huddle, he went to Henry for 16 on a low throw Henry picked off the rubber grass. Followed by him finding Smith for 10 after buying himself time to survey the entire field. But again, when they hit the red zone, the offense's wheels got stuck in mud and they had to get out and push.
--Obviously, the truly frustrating part of all this is that the two fumbles cost this team a win. And sole possession of first place in the division. And there's not much more to say about it than you should not fumble. As Belichick has stitched into a pillow on his sofa, "When you carry the ball, you're holding the fate of the whole team in your hands." After getting the ball punched out of his hands in the final preseason game, Rhamondre Stevenson left one on the ground (his buttcheek looked to be down to me, but whatever) and never got another carry. Damien Harris' fumble negated an otherwise outstanding day for him that started with a 35-yard run. On that one, the Pats were in a two-tight end set with Henry and Smith overloaded to the right side. It was an inside zone run with a clever blocking scheme because, as the tight ends doubled the edge and Trent Brown ran Christian Wilkins out of the play, inside you saw David Andrews leave the nose who was covering him to Michael Onwenu, which is rare. Typically the first rule of any zone blocking scheme is you take the man who's head-up on you. But instead, Andrews went to the second level to take on the inside linebacker while Shaq Mason blew up Elandon Roberts coming up to fill the hole. Great blocking all across the line, and nice vision by Harris to find the crease and get into the secondary without being touched:
--But fat lot of good any of that does you when you turn the ball over. That said, it was good to see Jones reaction to the fumble. He was vocal on the sidelines, keeping everyone's fires stoked and appearing to keep them focused on the next drive. Which unfortunately never came.
--Pulling back from the Google Street View to Google Earth, schematically this was very much the Joker offense the Patriots were running when he had two viable tight ends. Not the Gronk and Murdnanez era in terms of production, but just in look and play design. Think more of those brief times he had both Gronk and Martellus Bennett healthy at the same time. They literally lined up in 12-personnel more in the first half than they did all of last season. A lot of them lining up attached to the formation on the same side. A reliance on pre-snap motions to identify the coverage. Splitting either or both of them out to the slot or the numbers in the spread. They each took about 3/4 of the snaps. Combined they made eight catches on eight targets for 73 yards which, while I'm still trying to treat 2020 like a peyote-fueled fever dream in a sweat lodge and put it out of my mind for good, was about two month' worth of production from the position last year. More than anything, Henry and Smith give Josh McDaniels the scheme versatility he hasn't seen in years. And as we saw yesterday, he doesn't feel the need to keep the training wheels on for his rookie QB.
--Defensively, there's a lot to go over. And while 17 points sounds like a pretty good day in this NFL, this Roger Goodell wet dream of turning his league into a 1980s Denver Nuggets game, there are reasons to be concerned. The fact that both times Miami first touched the ball after coming out of the locker room, they put together touchdown drives. That last drive of the half when they went 45 yards in two and a half minutes to tie the game. Then that final possession when the Pats couldn't get them off the field, even while burning through all their timeouts. When you weirdly bookend both halves of a game by getting pushed around but then dominate all the drives in between, I don't know what to make of it. (Maybe a hat. Or a brooch. …) But Steve Belichick has a busy week ahead sorting this out.
--One thing we know for certain is that Kyle Dugger is now an every down safety. He's mainly used as a Robber, responsible for run support and taking away the underneath zones with Devin McCourty on the back end in Cover-1. Adrian Phillips is the in-the-box and line-of-scrimmage Big Nickel hybrid, stopping the run and covering the tight ends in the role Pat Chung perfected. JC Jackson is being assigned the primary target until Stephon Gilmore gets over whatever's bugging him. I'm still trying to sort out where Jalen Mills was lining up, but I suspect they moved him around the way Philadelphia did last year and not as outside corner opposite Jackson, the way he was all through camp. (But don't hold me to that.) Regardless he did make one outstanding PBU in deep coverage on Albert Wilson:
Continuing: Matt Judon is a full time edge player. Josh Uche is a situational pass rusher. Ju'Whaun Bentley got a surprising start as well as a ton of playing time. Davon Godchaux (nose tackle) and Christian Barmore (5-tech tackle) seem like major upgrades in the interior line rotation. You could probably spend the rest of the week going over all the new features on this thing like it's the latest Apple Watch. (Seriously, you should. And then let me know because I plan on starting "Only Murders in the Building" and won't have time.)
--I'll start with Judon, because why not? He was, in my unhumble opinion, the best signing they made in a free agent period full of them. And he showed why. There were a couple of glitches. One of those roughness calls was his on a punt where he found himself in the middle of the Miami bench surrounded by hostiles. And on a big outside run by Myles Gaskin, he was pinned inside and unable to be within five yards of ballcarrier. But aside from that, he was a presence all over the field. Dropping into coverage as the Hook/Zone linebacker. Turning running plays back inside. But it was in the pass rush that he made his biggest impact. Kyle Van Noy's sack was the result of him cleaning up after Judon pushed the tackle into Tagovailoa. He was particularly effective when he was paired with Uche. For instance, on the play before Jonathan Jones' interception, coming out of a two down lineman set with those two stacked on the outside, Uche got into Tagovailoa's grill to force a quick throw that went nowhere on a play that was negated by a Miami penalty. The interception itself was caused by both of them coming off the edge as Dont'a Hightower showed blitz but dropped into the middle zone. I'm still trying to teach my phone to quit autocorrecting "Judon and Uche" (and in a game that featured a Jakobi, a Jacoby and a Jakob, we are barely on speaking terms), because I'm going to be saying those names a lot. And while they might sound like two varieties of noodles on the menu at a Japanese steak house, they might prove to be the best pass rush duo we've seen this team have in forever.
--Also with regards to Uche, since he came into the league last year, he lived up to his scouting report as an elusive, quick-twitch type of rusher, who'll beat blocks with his get-off and a tool box full of twist and stunt moves. But this year he seems way more powerful. His sack just before the half was just a straight up bull rush of Liam Eichenberg that put the blocker and the quarterback on their asses:
--Belichick the Younger's first order of business this week has to be solving his crippling slants problem. Jackson said after the game they were mixing up their coverages, switching between off-man and press in order to give Tagovailoa different looks. And he continued to check to slants, which the Pats secondary had no answer for. DeVante Parker is outstanding. Jaylen Waddle is expected to be very good/can't miss. But giving up 20 and 15 yards per catch from them respectively, mostly coming from quick underneath throws is unacceptable. Death by a thousand slants.
--This week's Applicable Movie Quote: "We will be perfect in every aspect of the game. You drop a pass, you run a mile. You miss a blocking assignment, you run a mile. You fumble the football, and I will break my foot off in your John Brown hind parts and then you will run a mile. Perfection. Let's go to work." - Coach Boone, "Remember the Titans"
--I guess I really need to emphasize the fact I'm not claiming moral victory here or any such thing. Let's be clear, a loss is a loss and I prefer actual, immoral victories that go in the win column. I'm just saying that the major reasons for this loss are simple and correctable. The Patriots have won hundreds of these types of games over the Dynasty era by letting the other guys commit the stupid penalties and the careless turnover dumbassery. The bigger issue is, do they have something resembling a modern professional offense? And that so far looks like a resounding YES. That and the fact we get to actually go to games again will have to do for now. I'd much rather be sitting on 1-0, but Lord help me how I do love this so. The Jets game can't come soon enough.