Knee Jerk Reaction to Week 4: Patriots vs. Buccaneers
Things to consider while just being grateful you survived GOATerdammerung:
--I've said before and I'll say again: We do not do moral victories here. These are the Patriots of the 21st century. We prefer immoral victories. The more evil, sadistic, brutish, merciless, decadent, dishonest and cheaterish, the better. Just as long as they count in the W column, because there is no playoff tiebreaker that measures how good you feel about yourself. But this is just about as close as you can come to losing and still take positives away from it.
--The point being, that while the Patriots are most definitely trying to win now, in the grand scheme of things, they're building toward something. They are in the midst of a great reset they likes of which we haven't seen since 2000-01. Like they mentioned on the broadcast, they have 11 starters who weren't on the roster last year. And I'll add, facing the first Super Bowl champion that ever returned all 22 starters. So the obvious comparison to this game is one I'm sure is being made all over the place, so why should I be any different. This loss reminds me of the one to the Rams by that same 2001 team. That was also on Sunday Night Football. The Patriots were facing a recent championship team. They were starting a quarterback who was still relatively raw and untested. Running an offense with a lot of new parts and a coordinator who was still figuring out how to use them. They went into that one 8.5-point underdogs. They lost by one score. Only that time what did them in wasn't a consecutive field goal streak ending against the outside edge of the upright, but on a Kurt Warner-led drive of almost 8 minutes that bled the clock dry at the end. And even though it dropped them to 5-5, everyone's takeaway was that the Pats proved they could hang with the best team in football. They went on to win every game the rest of the season, including, in case you didn't see the twist ending coming, against those same Rams. I'm not suggesting 2021 will end the same way, with the Pats beating Tampa in the Super Bowl. But since the Matrix keeps glitching anyway, that wouldn't be the weirdest scenario to have play out.
--How this one all came down to Nick Folk hitting the post from 56 yards out is something that will be studied in coaching clinics, sports history seminars and philosophy classes until time itself stops. The bottom line being that, after almost 350 career starts, Tom Brady found himself up against the best coach he'd ever faced. Someone who not only knows him better than anyone, he invented him. And genetically bred another coach for the sole purpose of defeating Brady in the future, should the need ever arise. This guy:
--I'll have to rewatch this one because there was so much going on. The Belichicks' defense was a Perpetual Motion Machine of moving parts that clearly kept throwing things at Brady that he didn't recognize. But just so this doesn't end up being Thursday Jerk Reactions, I'll try to skim the surface of what it looked like from the reclining sofa at Stately Thornton Manor.
--The biggest focus was on disguising pre-snap looks. Camouflaging press man as zone. Deep Cover-2 looks that were really Cover-1 Robber in disguise, with a safety coming down to clog the slant lanes. Three-man rushes with eight dropping into coverage that were cosplaying at five-man blitzes. Multiple defensive backs in linebacker's clothing. Cover-2 Cone (where you bracket the Mike Evans as the WR1) gets its mask pulled off only to reveal it was Cover-2 Deuce (bracket on WR2 Chris Godwin) all along. And all of them hiding behind a curtain of rotating fronts, basic two-gap 30-fronts shifting to four-man unders and even some with a single down lineman, from one snap to the next. The Belichick scheme was like the defenses on the Borg ship, where the deflector shields would automatically shift into whatever phase would absorb the power of any weapon the Starfleet ships fired at them. (I'll admit, that last analogy was so nerdy my virginity just came back. But it fits. I regret nothing.) Twice we saw Brady come to the line not knowing if he had a play or a check to another play that would work against the alignment he was staring into, so he burned time outs early in the half rather than risk disaster.
--We'd see maybe once a year or so. Some defensive coach throwing looks at Brady he and the Patriots weren't ready for and couldn't adjust to. Hell, Rex Ryan was good for one every couple of seasons, like the Jets Divisional round win at Gillette in 2010, which was his masterpiece. And then for a week or so it would be talked about as "the blueprint" for stopping him that would be copied around the league and turn him into Jay Cutler. Until the next time it was tried and he'd take a ninja sword to whomever dared try and you'd never hear about it again until the next "blueprint" was peeled off the drawing board. Good luck to the next coordinator thinking he can duplicate this game plan.
--None of which is to suggest this was all scheme. There's credit due all over the defense, beginning with JC Jackson. He drew the short straw that is being the "Star" defender, taking on Evans, full time. Occasionally with one of the safeties rotating to his side, but mainly it was Jackson iso'd on one of the biggest threats in the league. And while Evans wasn't stranded on an island, he was stuck on Cape Jackson. And around here Capes are really hard to get off of on a Sunday. In all he was targeted 12 times, with seven receptions for 75 yards and no score. Just as importantly, leaving Jackson on his own to limit Evans' damage allowed the rest of the secondary to double up on Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin, while Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips effectively took the tight ends (two catches for 29 yards) out of the game.
--Like I've said, they mixed and matched the coverages. But for the most part, you can give Jalen Mills credit for containing Godwin (three catches, 55 yards), while Jonathan Jones - who's normally their slot corner - spent most of the night out on the boundary against Brown. And typical of Brady, once Jones came out with what looked like a calf injury and Justin Bethel subbed in on a 3rd & 6, his predator instincts kicked in. He sensed the weakest one in the herd and pounced, in the form of an 8-yard out route to Brown. Then again, when Jones came back in on the next play and Brady tried to prey on the injured with two shots to the end zone intended for Brown, one that was defended by Jones and the other a near miss through Brown's hands. I've always said that defending a Brady offense when it's in the spread is like a game of Go Fish where he can see your cards. He knows where the mismatches are as soon as he breaks the huddle. (Think that one empty set he ran where Kyle Van Noy was on Leonard Fournette that drew a DPI call.) And with this skill position depth chart, there are mismatches no matter who you put on them. It's just that the Patriots cornerbacks elevated their game such that the gaps between them and the assignments they drew were minimal.
--And while we're talking about individual efforts on the defensive side, you can't go wrong singling out Matt Judon, who has flat out been the best player on the roster through the first four weeks. He had four total tackles, and he and his red sleeves were once again a common household object in the opposition's backfield, with two tackles for a loss and this sack, when he blew right through a backside peel block by Alex Cappa AND a blitz pickup by Ronald Jones II like a ghost walking through a wall for the sack:
He also kept points off the board in the 2nd with a pressure on 3rd & 7 out of a one down lineman set (what I shorthand as the State Worker front, because it's one guy working and the others standing around doing nothing) that forced an incompletion followed by a missed field goal. And extra credit to Judon for the celebration. How nobody has done the "Wiping Your Nose on Your Sleeve" thing before now is beyond me. I think I see a t-shirt in our near future.
--Though maybe Judon's most overlooked contribution was the penalty he drew from Donovan Smith to kill the drive that started the 2nd half. Those opening possessions have been this defense's Kryptonite for the most part. But Judon quick-twitched Smith off the edge so badly that he had to put him in a headlock to prevent the sack. But the result was a very much appreciated 3 & out.
--Plus the penalty gave Cris Collinsworth a chance to extend his consecutive streak of thinking a penalty in the Patriots' favor was a bad call. OK, maybe technically having your arm wrapped around a pass rusher's head isn't Illegal Hands to the Face. But we're splitting hairs when he's giving Judon Biff Tannen-style noogies, and there are about another half a dozen NFL penalties being violated on that one. Meanwhile Collinsworth said nothing when Lawrence Guy got flagged for the same call on a play where his hands never went above anybody's armpits. I try my best not to be one of those "The announcers are against us!" simpletons. But I defy you to find an example of a time when this goon ever doesn't think the Pats caught a break with a bad call or non-call.
--Kudos as well to some of the interior linemen. It seemed as though the plan was to primarily drop linebackers into the short- and intermediate zones to take away the shallow crosses and tight end slants and defy Tampa to beat them with Fournette runs. To pick the lesser of those two poisons, and hope the D-tackles can be an effective therapeutic. And for the most part, they were. On the Tampa possession after that penalty Judon drew, Fournette opened with an 8-yard run. Then Guy stuffed him for no gain (with Dont'a Hightower filling the A-gap), then Deatrich Wise broke up the pass while pushing the pocket against Smith. Christian Barmore was active again, throwing off Tristan Wirfs (in the rare Tristan vs. Christian matchup) for a stop on Fournette and on a couple of occasions forcing Brady out of the pocket and throwaways; And Davon Godchaux, who's been inconsistent so far, stunted with Van Noy on 3rd & goal to force a scramble and a throwaway for a red zone stop and keep it to a 16-14 deficit. There's plenty to clean up in the Front-7. But given that Ju'Whaun Bentley has been their best linebacker so far and he was out, getting some pressures and keeping Fournette from trampling them the way the Jets did feels like a win.
--So for the second week in a row, I've gotten myself deep into the British Open rough before addressing Mac Jones. So I'll make up for it by expressing my thoughts in meme form:
OK, maybe not exactly. But it's not unfair to say that, all else being equal, he was the better of the two quarterbacks during these specific 60 minutes of running game clock Sunday night. Unlike Brady, he had no help whatsoever. Damien Harris, JJ Taylor and Brandon Bolden combined for six carries and -4 yards. They lined up Jakob Johnson as a fullback in most of those attempts and it was effectively like taking a knee. Once again, most of the times Jones dropped back, the zombie horde from "World War Z" came after him. Still, he was able to effectively run play action, even in 2-running back sets, even though the Bucs didn't have to worry about actual runs. He stood up in the face of pressure and delivered the ball. You can question throwing into a window that was only open a crack with Devin White bearing down on him:
… but he delivered the ball over Russ Cockrell into Nelson Agholor's hands and his target couldn't come down with it. More importantly, the defense held so it didn't lead to points.
--More more importantly, he's showing the pocket sense to feel pressure, slide around and evade it, and keep his eyes upfield while routes develop. We've seen guys who struggle with that (sorry, but Drew Bledsoe had the peripheral vision of an old man in cataract sunglasses) and one who excels at it (Brady). And it's one of those innate things that can't be taught. Jones has it. I mean, look at the way he ran through his progressions before finding Hunter Henry at the 1:
Moving his head like a lawn sprinkler to scan the field, but always while shifting his feet to keep his balance and blade his body toward his target. Then finding Henry coming across from the back side of the play on a Yankee Concept route where he ran right at the linebacker for a blocking look before coming underneath Agholor's clear out to the back corner. That's the vision, patience and technique of a five year veteran, not a rookie in his fourth game.
--Not to mention, this came with all the mental pressure you could put on a rookie. Not a playoff game, but the closest you can come to one this early in his first season. With the eyes of the world focused the game. Half of all NBC News employees descended on the stadium like it was the site of a Royal Wedding. The guy you're replacing showing up to receive an outpouring of love underneath the six banners he started hanging in the building back when you were in diapers. Grudges going back and forth all over the place. All of them mixed with admiration and appreciation. None of which involves you, but you're a product of it. Plus you're the lower number in the greatest age disparity between two starting QBs in league history. That's a moment that would be too big for a lot of people with jobs much easier than quarterbacking against a top-tier, championship defense. And Jones handled it like he was facing Ole Miss. I mean, 19 consecutive completions is damned near impossible under the best of circumstances against a garbage team. Doing it in this situation against this opponent is a hell of a good omen.
--As you watch Jones progress, it's hard not to keep asking yourself how good he'll look if they can ever put together a viable ground game and pass protect. Because the strength of this team was supposed to be it's offensive line. But it's been by far their greatest liability. Trent Brown was scratched for the third straight week due to what has to be the worst strain in the history of calves. But by no means is the problem just with the right tackle spot. Michael Onwenu had been their best O-lineman but he committed two holds on the drive that ended with Henry's TD before getting pulled. Only to have his replacement Ted Karras get bullrushed by Vita Vea, who proceeded to take out him and Isaiah Wynn like candlepins while Joe Tryon-Shovinka twisted behind him to bodybag Jones:
--At this point, I don't know what you do about it. I'm a big believer that in today's NFL, September is an extension of training camp. And all those non-contact practices don't help you … well, practice contact. And we've seen successful seasons where for the first month the line is in total disarray before they figure it out. We just better hope it doesn't another month. Or even another week. Or a quarter. Granted, Tampa has an elite front and struggling with running and protection against them goes with the territory. But right now if Jones was a car, his insurance premiums would be going up thanks to his line's Unsafe Driver points.
--The way Jones was able to move the ball is even more impressive when you realize it was his first time playing when the secret Belichick Weather Machine hidden in the lighthouse was set to "Driving Rainstorm." I don't recall if Nick Saban had one down in 'Bama. But it seemed to be working on Brady, now that he's gotten used to Florida.
--At the risk of sounding like an old, how many commercials on SNF are hitting their target demo? Maybe just because I grew up in a world where advertisers targeted their demo with ads for beer, car care products and delicious, artery-clogging snack treats. But are they really spending their dollars right when it's some fashion designer on a laptop with hummingbirds and a dancer and a slow motion curtain? Or any of the 15 shows NBC has with "Chicago" in the title? Never mind. I'll go yell this at a cloud.
--At times in the past I've been critical of the Real Housewives of Foxboro. When I thought the Gillette crowd was growing complacent and entitled. But that was a long time ago. Before ridiculous non-troversies like all the "-Gates" scandals galvanized them and they became the lovable bunch of angry paranoid Massholes that make me proud to be one. And still, I thought this was their finest hour. Cheering their spleens out for Brady when he came out of the tunnel, only to boo him when he took the field? That was a masterstroke. The perfect way to say "We love you. Thanks. Now lose." You couldn't have scripted it any better. And it was another reminder how scoreboard messages - and in some cases, even articles teams put out - telling people how to cheer are an insult to the intelligence of the ticket buying public.
--Though I had to laugh at that guy from Boston NBC quoted who said basically Hell no, he wouldn't cheer for Brady while he was with the Bucs. While the photo showed him in a Gronk jersey.
--By the same token? Pick a lane, asswipes.
--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote: "Where's the goat?!?" - Lex, "Jurassic Park"
--Josh McDaniels has had his missteps to this point, no question about it. But you have to give him credit for at least trying to establish some sort of a ground game. Even a totally ineffective one behind Johnson, who I just think is not a professional fullback and shouldn't be taking up a roster spot. But more than that, give him credit for abandoning the effort as quickly as he did. Instead he went with 12 personnel, allowing his QB to take advantage of a woefully thin Bucs secondary. And drew up a couple of gadget plays that worked to perfection, even though the Bucs told Collinsworth and Al Michaels they were expecting something. This was a gem. Especially the way McDaniels sold the run action with Harris scraping along the line behind a pulling Shaq Mason:
--OK, let me correct something I said earlier: Jakobi Meyers was the best quarterback on the field. And not for the first time in his career.
--Also, if you're looking for some other positive to take away from another home loss, at different points we were all convinced that not only Meyers but also Harris were lost. Possibly for the season. And each came back and finished the game.
--Another positive: The Pats had the edge on special teams, as they should. As God intended. Notwithstanding your kicker barely missing a game winner that would tied his career long. And that terrible Unsportsmanlike on Matthew Slater for being out of bounds as he repeatedly got pushed out of bounds. The punt team flipped the field repeatedly and put Tampa's offense on some long fields and that is how the universe is supposed to work.
--No offense: Bruce Arians looks so much like the Snowman from "Rudolph" I want to give him a vest and a banjo and hope he knows the chords for "Silver and Gold."
--I'm reading nothing into Belichick's half-hearted hug of Brady, who appeared to want a moment with him. I think if it was under the tunnel and away from prying eyes, he would've lovingly spooned with him for hours. I think he just didn't want to give the jackals with their cameras their moment.
--I'm so glad this is behind us. Even as I keep going over this game, I'm just over the moon about the fact we endured it and it's over. Now we get to focus on our current QB legend in the making, not our old one.