Things to consider while being grateful the U.S. of A. is still capable of kicking European ass, Greatest Generation-style:
--Julian Edelman deserved better.
--I'd resigned myself to the fact I'd start every one of these this year with Mac Jones. It took three games for the Patriots to drop him way down the list thanks to yet another game of the sort they've always graciously accepted from lesser-coached teams. Filled to the brim with mental mistakes. Physical blunders. Emotional breakdowns. Spiritual bungles. Own goals. Unforced errors of commission and omission. Committed booboos. Whoopsies. Owies. They ran with scissors. Went swimming right after they ate. Walked under ladders. Stepped on cracks. Said "Bloody Mary" into mirrors. Repeated "Beetlejuice" three times. Watched "The Ring" video. Split up in the woods. Went down into the basement to see what the noise was. Kept the beaches open after a shark attack. Got involved in a land war in Asia and went up against a Sicilian when death was on the line. For the second time in three weeks they played with the kind of situational awareness that was a staple of Rex Ryan teams but we'd go years without seeing on a Bill Belichick squad. And it's alarming.
--And leading this marching band into the dead end alley were the two tight ends they invested all those KraftBucks in back in the spring. Jonnu Smith basically played like he was a sleeper agent, sent here from Tennessee to destroy Mike Vrabel's former team from within for trading him to Kansas City in 2009. Targeted six times for an astonishing four yards, when he wasn't letting tough-but-catchable balls go through his hands, he was flipping them up in the air to be picked off:
Following this Pick-6, Smith's next target was on 3rd & 6. A quick slant where he had room to operate and make a play. But the pass bounced off his belly button, punt. He added a crucial holding call where he tackled whomever he was supposed to be blocking. Then got dusted on a block that resulted in a tackle for loss that killed a drive late in the 3rd.
--For his part, Hunter Henry picked up a 1st down or two and put them in some 3rd & shorts. But then he was missing blocks all over the place, like late in the half when he was in a tight-Y with Smith in the slot, Smith ran a shallow crosser and Henry was supposed to bounce out and pick up the end, but didn't get there in time, whiffed on the block and the pass was broken up. Then with the staff showing all the confidence in Jones that he could pick up a 4th & 1, the rookie went with a hard count, hoping to draw someone offsides. And it worked to perfection. On Henry. Who came out of the sprinter's blocks and was five yards across the line before he realized he was the only one moving. Field goal. So the top two tight ends on the free agent market combined for 40 receiving yards, half as many mental errors, and gave New Orleans a touchdown. Consider me underwhelmed. And by now I'd settle for just being whelmed.
--I'll get back to the players' mistakes as we go on. In fact, they'll be in every bite of this KJR like the raisins in a cinnamon bagel. But I want to give the game plans the top billing they deserve. Offensively, the way you attack the Saints is the way Carolina had done last week. They've got one of the best run defenses in the league, and are especially effective on standard rushing plays, with your quarterback under center. On passing downs, Dennis Allen has a whole deck of blitz cards he can deal from. The exact kinds of stunts, twists and games that the Pats have been struggling to pick up. So the Panthers went with a controlled passing game, getting the ball out quick with slants, seams, flats and curls, and put up 300 yards on them. Which just happens to be Jones' strong suit thus far. So Josh McDaniels decided to subvert expectations by doing the opposite. Power runs by Damien Harris. Vertical routes that take time to develop. And trailing 21-3, a couple of toss plays to that noted bellcow lead back, Brandon Bolden, who finished the day with 3 carries for -1 yards, a nifty -0.3 yards per carry average.
--Defensively against this team, you've got to contain Alvin Kamara. Every year since 2011, Sean Payton has had a running back either first or second in Fantasy points. He has so much success because he finds ways to create space for his backs. Both with his outside zone running schemes and route combinations that create stress and conflict on a defense. For instance, one staple of theirs has been "Red 7 Poach," a 3-tight end spread, which forces defenses to keep three linebackers on the field and attacking one of them with Kamara, which is invariably a mismatch. His touchdown was similar. The Pats were running a zone blitz, with Dont'a Hightower coming from the middle and Matt Judon dropping into underneath coverage. Kamara sold Kyle Van Noy on a flat route, but stemmed it off into the middle, which had been cleared out by Adam Trautman running a Y-drive that drew Kyle Dugger:
Leaving the best dual-threat back in football wide open isn't a mistake by one or two guys. It's a system-wide failure that starts at the top.
--By the same token, I'd like to know what Steve Belichick had in mind when faced with a 3rd & 1, he had JC Jackson playing five yards off Marquez Callaway. The best press-man corner currently on the active roster and he was positioned in such a way that Callaway could've picked up the 1st if Jameis Winston had headed the ball to him like a soccer pass.
--The way you stop the outside zone runs is the opposite of how you stop inside zones. Instead of your D-lineman anchoring along the line of scrimmage to clog cutback lanes, you attack vertically and get into the backfield. Which, admittedly, they had some success at. Judon, Dugger and Deatrich Wise in particular were able to limit Kamara somewhat and produced a few negative plays. And you could see where Josh Uche would've been a huge asset. Similarly, they had early success at stopping the Wildcat schemes with Taysom Hill. At least, that is, until the really needed to make a stop. Once the Pats got into the end zone and made it a one-score game, it brought out the worst in this defense.
--In a have-to-have-it situation, they gave up a 13-play, 75-yard, almost seven minute drive for a score. With six 1st downs. And twice in a row Hill took direct snaps and picked up 20 yards on them. Ballgame. And the crucial play of all of them was the 3rd & 7 at the start of the drive. That was the pluperfect moment to make a statement play. Your offense just handed you all the momentum. The crowd is louder than my car stereo when my kid drove it last. A 3 & out there would be massive. It would give you the ball back with eight minutes to go. Instead Winston hits Deonte Harris under the comfy cushion Jalen Mills provided him. It might as well have been monogrammed "Keep Your Drive Alive."
--Another proven method for stopping Payton's offense is to attack Winston, who coming in had a 41.3 passer rating when pressured. Which the Pats did. Just not very successfully. I don't have the numbers, but it seemed like they were sending an extra rusher on most of his drop backs. Hightower on that Kamara touchdown, for example. Devin McCourty on the 3rd & 10 that Winston converted to Harris on their first TD drive. They just weren't effective. When the advanced stats come out in a day or two, don't be at all surprised if Winston's rating under pressure is north of 100, he looked that good. Of course, it doesn't hurt when you make exactly the kind of throw that are in coaches' heads when they jump up in bed screaming with night terrors, and it goes for a score.
Dugger had Winston at about a 45-degree angle when he let that one go. One more degree and I think Dugger would get credit for half a sack on the play. And on a Patriots team that's got their crap together, there's no way Jonathan Jones doesn't come down with that post up lob pass. But not only did he lose his man in the paint, he fouled him. Callaway should've gotten the chance to convert the And 1.
--The best player on the defense was clearly Judon, who is unique among the free agents in that he's been better than advertised. Not just for the 2.5 sacks. Though the one where he got his pads underneath a Ryan Ramczyk block without losing any of his momentum and then accelerated into Winston was extra special. It's just his overall game. He seems to have a full grasp of what all 11 are supposed to be doing, but he's also as good at play recognition as anyone on this unit. Including Hightower and McCourty. For instance, another of his sacks came on a misdirection naked boot by Winston that fooled everyone but Judon and Christian Barmore, who came in on the QB untouched. Add two tackles for loss by Judon and he at least was one diamond sparkling in this dogshit.
--I'll give some credit to Davon Godchaux as well, who made a few plays early on. Though I should probably watch the game tape before I go too overboard on that. And I've burned the game tape and dumped the ashes into a toxic waste receptacle at the transfer station so it won't harm Gaia Mother Earth. Anyway, playing in a lot of 30-fronts, in a traditional 3-4 on the first Saints' possession, then switching to more of an "under" front as the game progressed, Godchaux made several nice stops on Kamara. One when he shed a block from Andrus Peat to hold Kamara to no gain and later when he and Chase Winovich were both in on the run-stuff. Overall it was an improvement from a D-tackle and a line that got pushed off the ball by the Jets.
--I can't believe it's taken this long to get into Jones, but these are strange days indeed. (Most peculiar, mama. Roll.) The numbers are what they are. And go on his permanent record. But nothing we saw discourages me. Or dissuades me from believing this kid is a Certified Fresh [tm] NFL quarterback right now. He never comes off as confused as to what look the defense is giving him and what to check to for the given look. He rarely throws a ball you'd consider an unsafe throw. On the first pick he was hit as he threw. The second we've seen and Smith might as well have pulled up in an Amazon van and left it on Malcolm Jenkins' farmer's porch. And the last was that one you throw when the game is out of reach, you no longer have the luxury of reducing risk and you don't give a rat's taint about your stats.
--Believe me, I'm conflicted after spending most of last week complaining about McDaniels kept Jones' training wheels on against the Jets and I wanted to see him opening it up more. Because like I said earlier, this would've been the week to keep the ball coming out quick and the air yards short. When Jones did air it out, the results were mixed. He missed on a deep route where Nelson Agholor got turned around and the ball hit the turf between the hashes. But my guess is that Agholor should've read "middle of the field open" (MOFO) and ran a post instead of stemming it out. Another was a 9-route to Kendrick Bourne up the boundary that Jones overshot by a couple of yards. But again, when he misses, he tends to miss in the safest possible spot. A little too long. Leading his target a little too much. In fact, maybe his most dangerous throw had the best result:
Bourne not only winning the 50/50 ball, but completing the play with a spot-on impression of my last Field Sobriety Test actually made a game of it at one point. I'd add "let's not forget that." But I think we'll be better off forgetting this one.
--Bourne has clearly begun earning his coveted spot in Jones' Circle of Trust. But watch any random minute of Patriots football and it's obvious the center point of that circle is Jakobi Meyers. He targeted Meyers 14 times in all, with every type of route in the playbook. A 7-yarder sitting underneath the deep middle zone. A 17-yard connection on a Yankee Concept deep cross underneath a vertical route as Meyers shook Paulson Adebo. And out route on 3rd & 1. A 3rd & 2 Meyers caught in stride off his shoelaces. A pivot route that, if you were switching back and forth between that play and the halftime show like the guy watching Serena Williams and Wonder Woman, you'd see Meyers running it in a No. 11 jersey because it was pure Edelman. Now that James White's immediate future is in doubt, Meyers is the Patriots best offensive player.
--Oh, right. James White's immediate future is in doubt. Him getting carted off sucks. That's it. That's the paragraph. Other than to add my own personal note. How, as we were sitting through the commercial break hoping against hope White would spring to his feet and sprint back to the Patriots sideline, my beguiling Irish Rose was down a cellphone rabbit hole complaining to me that she just found out the Tony Awards are not going to be on free TV. Saturday was our anniversary. And there is no better microcosm of the last 28 years for us than that story.
--Speaking of relationships, you have to respect Belichick in a purple-faced rage dropping a full-throated "It's fucking bullshit!!!" on the female official. That is his sign of respect. And equal opportunity in its purest form.
--What is actually the most shocking thing about this team is the way they're playing special teams. This unit gets the check mark over the Saints thanks to two missed field goals, but still. Again, we're seeing the kinds of boneheaded mistakes this team has always prided itself on avoiding. On Sundays too numerous to mention we've stood there with our arms crossed, smugly nodding silently while the oppositions' special teams showed they were the furthest thing from special. But twice already we've seen a Josh Allen kickoff go out of bounds. Then he had a punt blocked when neither Dugger nor Brandon King chose to get in Andrew Dowell's way. Joe Cardona got flagged for a false start. Then Allen twice flew punts directly into the center of the Saints end zone, to minimum benefit. He's still pulling off spectacular kicks, and field goal tear Big Dick Nick Folk is on continues. But the lack of consistency by the teams overall is a bad sign when their head coach obsesses over them.
--Mac Jones was your leading rusher. Even as he ripped his knee brace off like the good 'Bama kid that he is:
… he was your leading rusher. And picked up all the 1st downs you gained on the ground. Let that sink in for a while. And then repress the memory the way you should.
This Week's Applicable Movie Quote:
Mitch: "There's two kinds of people in this world: Those who get stomped on and those who do the stomping."
Kathy: "Where'd you come up with that theory?"
Mitch: "That famous guy said it. What's his name? Uh… Oh, yeah: Jesus!"
- "Dirty Work" (RIP, Norm)
--Buckle up. The moment we've been dreading is upon us. We're onto GOATerdammerung.