Things to consider while appreciating a great day for guys named Hunter in New England:
--I get that there are those among us who aren't feeling especially great about the Patriots barely squeaking out a win against a pretty bad Houston team. But bear with me on this. In the Before Times, in the way, way back, we used to come out of games like this concerned that the defense didn't play well, there were a bunch of mistakes, missed kicks, turnovers, stupid penalties and so on, and the only reason we came away with a win is we had a quarterback who hung in there, found a rhythm, mounted a comeback and made up for everyone else's shortcomings. But he wasn't going to be able to do that forever. I too used to worry about that. Now I think it's something we should celebrate.
--Yes, Mac Jones was able to hide all those flaws. And I'm rejoicing over it. If every other unit on this year's Patriots was getting A's and B's and he was pulling a D, there would be every reason to panic. And while the others marks are all over the grading curve, I don't see how you don't give the rookie a solid B+ at the very least. So feel free to feel good. Yes, we saw his first interception that was truly on him, a poor throw on a bad decision from a clean pocket. But we also watched him get the ball at his own (OK, the team's; he doesn't own the yard lines) 24 with 1:31 left in the half and no time outs and still put points on the board. Then down 22-9, score on each of the last four Patriots possessions, for the last 16 points of the game and a victory. Thus proving two things. One, that Jones has whatever gene it is in some athletes that makes them dangerous late in games when they're behind. And two, that time is a flat circle:
--Consider his touchdown to Hunter Henry. A route and pass combo that was so beautiful it deserves its own adjective. Let's call it, Beckinsalian. Henry came off the line with a hard vertical release to get Terrance Mitchell into a back pedal, gave just enough of a twitch to indicate he was stemming his route to the post to get Mitchell to drop toward the middle, then broke out to a fade at the boundary, which Jones saw all the way.
--Here's the issue with that. This was, unless I'm missing one, just the second ball Jones has throw into the end zone in his five game career. The first being the touchdown from the 1-yard line when the Bucs left Jonnu Smith uncovered. That this pass to Henry came after the rookie had played 290 minutes of pro football and was just his second attempt into the end zone is inexcusable. Josh McDaniel gets into these high leverage situations - good field position after turnovers, the red zone - and morphs into a controlling, overly concerned, Helicopter Mom, slathering her perfect angel in hand sanitizer, checking him for bruises and staring through the window of the bouncy castle worried that some bigger kid is going to jump on her boy's precious head while all the other moms are sipping seltzers and talking about "Bachelor in Paradise."
--Consider McDaniels' play calling after Houston handed him the lovely gift in the gorgeous wrapping paper that was that goofy zero yard fake faked punt, ball at the Texans 36. He went with Damien Harris off right tackle for 3. Harris up the middle for -3. On 3rd & 10, a screen pass to Brandon Bolden. No chance. Field goal. Then trailing by 10 in the 3rd quarter, he follows up a 21-yarder to Henery a great 20 yard pass to Nelson Agholor to the Houston 16 with a bubble screen to Agholor, a RB screen to Bolden, and a slip screen to Kendrick Bourne. Field goal. At that point, after two big gains get you down to the red zone like that, showing off your screen pass package is like being at a great party when the hostess decides it's time to turn off the music and break out her Shutterfly book of all the photos they took in the Galapagos. Thanks for killing the vibe, Josh.
--And the damned shame of playing it so conservatively in those situations is that Jones has shown no indication that he needs to be protected from himself. Yes, there was the aforementioned interception, which was all on him. But through five full games now it's not like he's showing some proclivity for bad decisions you have to avoid in favor of the mighty, unstoppable weapon that is your Brandon Bolden screen game. Jones is anticipating routes, reading the field, identifying the open man. You can see him against three deep defenders looking to his Cover-3 beater seam routes. When he reads a single deep safety closing off the middle of the field he's able to target the sideline routes. For instance, that total breakdown when he found Jakobi Meyers all alone but Meyers handled it like a guy dropping his iPhone into a urinal. (Only with more pee going down his pantleg.) Maybe it makes sense to overmanage a rookie quarterback. And God knows some of the guys taken ahead of Jones could use a little more TLC than they're getting. But at this point, it's past the time to let Jones off the leash. Particularly in the red area, since that is why Henry and Smith were signed and, presumably, why N'Keal Harry was drafted.
--And while I'm standing here with my arms folded giving McDaniels my stern, disapproving, "I'm not so much angry as I am, well, disappointed" stinkeye, the whole coaching staff has to be held accountable for the mental errors we continue to see. Seemingly with no end in sight. We're getting very close to the point where we have to stop calling them "unPatriot-like" because it's becoming so common. Like how toward the end of Wes Welker's career play-by-play guys were saying, "That's a rare drop by him," even though it was happening every week. We've seen 12 Men on the Field penalties. A touchdown allowed when they only lined up 10. And this game the unforced error was an Illegal Shift that negated Rhamondre Stevenson's touchdown. That is, an Illegal Shift on 2nd & goal from the 4 in the final two minutes of a tie game that took 7 points off the board. We're all still conditioned to point and laugh at all the lesser coached teams who've been giving us those breaks all these years. But it's time to start Spiderman Memeing the Pats on this.
--By the same token, there was yet another super expensive costly fumble, this one as Harris was millimeters away from breaking the plane. If he kept two hands on the ball in heavy traffic, a last minute comeback wouldn't have been necessary. But since he didn't, that comeback spared this team the humiliation of being 1-4 with the realization turnovers cost them at least two of those games. We still don't know what this team's identity is yet. Just that, the one steadiest, most consistent part of it so far has been their fumble game.
--Still, there is one coach who has not only stepped up, he might have been the MVP of this game: Offensive line coach Cole Popovich came up huge under the toughest of circumstances. I used to say you could randomly select five fat guys out of the stands and Dante Scarnecchia could coach them up to give you 4.0 yards per carry. Popovich very nearly did the same, only with David Andrews and four randomly selected guys off the bench, getting 126 yards on 30 carries, a 4.2 average. Just when we were all hitting the breaking point with the line so far this year. When we were all out of patience after negative rushing yards against Tampa and no pass protection. When I was about to do the first "IronMan" thing, "Dante Scarnecchia built a line in a cave! With a box of SCRAPS!" thing with Popovich meekly responding, "Well, I'm not Dante Scarnecchia," his unit put together their best performance of the year with Yodny Cajuste and Justin Herron at tackle, and James Ferentz and Ted Karras on either side of Andrews.
--Consider this pitch to Bolden. The Texans were in an "under" front, meaning shifted over to the weak side of the Pats formation. So Smith motions from the right to the left slot. He blocks down on the playside end, Jacob Martin. Ferentz briefly doubles the i-shade nose tackle Jaleel Johnson before leaving him to Andrews and bouncing to the second level to hit Christian Kirksey like three times all the way up the field. Meanwhile Cajuste takes an L step behind Smith to the outside and runs the corner all the way to the sideline while Meyers throws the key block of the entire play, putting Kamu Grugier-Hill on the ground.
--That's everyone knowing their keys, communicating and executing. Then there was this one. The line overall gets just enough of a push. But Cajuste takes out Jonathan Greenard at the point of attack, Henry gets a hat on Zach Cunningham and Ferentz pulls to be the lead blocker and Harris follows him for the score.
--I'm particularly all in on Cajuste, whom I've wanted to see get a shot ever since Trent Brown went down with the World's Most Devastating Calf Strain over a month ago. My brother Jack was high on him when he was at West Virginia. (Full disclosure, I saw him play in person at a Mountaineers game and took zero notice. Though I could tell you how much Fireball I shared with strangers while singing "Country Roads" and give you a full description of the guy who handed me a Natty Ice for letting him go ahead of me into the men's room. Priorities.) Now that he's finally gotten a career start, it seems what I saw of him at joint practices and preseason was not an illusion. Brown and Isaiah Wynn can take their sweet time coming back.
--It's taken me this long to talk about the defense. And that's by design. Because for three quarters-plus, they were as much fun to watch as a CBS sitcom about kidney transplants. Remember last week when we were all (at least I was) saying they'll be fine without Stephon Gilmore? Because JC Jackson, Jalen Mills and Jonathan Jones all looked so good against Tampa? Yeah. That escalated quickly. Instead, they looked like they did in the bad old days. Post-Asante Samuel and pre-Aqib Talib, when they could be counted on to take some journeyman like Matt Moore or Rex Grossman look like 1999 Kurt Warner and their secondary's marketing slogan was, "Where QB Incentive Bonuses Happen." Hell, they had a 3rd & 3 where they dropped eight into coverage and still gave up 27 yards. So Davis Mills, a middle round rookie who threw for 87 yards and had four interceptions a week ago takes a flamethrower to them for the first 45 minutes or so.
--In fact that first Texans possession, 79 yards, three 3rd down conversions and a 4th, that ate up 10 minutes of game clock and ended in the end zone had me so feeling like the bad old days I almost put on some Chris Daughtry and set my DVR to record "24."
--In fairness though, switching to the Red Sox immediately after the game, I was reminded that, while that opening drive took forever, Dice-K used to have two or three at bats a game that lasted longer than that.
--With Jalen Mills out, they tried to mix and match different bodies in outside coverage opposite Jackson. With mostly disastrous results. Devin McCourty, Myles Bryant and Joejuan Williams took turns being split out wide up on the line. Each was targeted twice. Each gave up two receptions. The most egregious of which belonged to Williams. One coming on the fleaflicker to Chris Conley, which is unforgivable because there is no excuse for an outside corner to bite on the run fake, since his primary, secondary, and tertiary responsibilities there are sticking with his man all the way up the field. It makes me wonder if Houston saw something on film that told them Williams was susceptible to the fake. Though he's played so little who knows if there's another film for anyone to know what he does or doesn't do. And earlier on, it was the 4th & 2 where Davis Mills hit Conley for 40. There it looked like Williams got himself caught in between on Mills' rollout. And McCourty was late recognizing it and only the fact Williams recovered and got back into the play saved it from being a touchdown.
--Those were recurring theme. Both McCourty being late getting to a play and the secondary allowing conversions on 3rd & 4th downs. The Chris Moore 67-yard TD was especially bad. JC Jackson was in trail technique up the sidelines, and mistimed his jump, while McCourty scrambled to get over and his momentum took him right past the receiver and out of bounds. I don't know if he was playing the ball instead of the man or just took one of Brandon Meriweather's old Euclidean bad angles or what. Just that it was the low point of a really bad game for one of the most important players on this team.
--One defensive back who did acquit himself rather well was Adrian Phillips. Both in terms of his play as an in-the-box run force tackler, but also splitting duties with Kyle Dugger as the "Lurk" defender in the Pats Cover-2, dropping down in front of McCourty into the underneath zones. Phillips gave up two receptions on three targets for just 12 total yards, and limited YAC to practically nothing. He has sneaky been one of the best free agent signings they've made over the last several years.
--Though THE best free agent signings currently on the roster now that Gilmore was traded, continues to be Matt Judon. More to the point, he's the best player on the 2021 Patriots, period. The first stop they made on defense was all due to two sacks he made in the span of three snaps. The first was pure recognition, when he read a naked boot by Mills and was four steps in the backfield by the time the QB got into his rollout. And the next was Judon getting both hands inside Charlie Heck and shooting the G-T gap:
I guess you could say [chuckle], that Judon [snicker] … beat th--. Nope. I'll not do it. Get that sort of coverage elsewhere. I'll refuse to grab such low-hanging fruit. That's the Old Balls Difference.
--While I still remain skeptical Jamie Collins can play with any kind of consistency, it still felt good to see him mix this into the only three snaps he played. Because it's going to take a lot more than just Judon to keep this defense from getting snowplowed off the field every week.
--It was alarming how often Texans receivers were open over the middle and by how much. Every time they saw outside leverage by a defender, they stemmed their routes to get inside the hashes and there was never a linebacker there to get into the passing routes. The same thing was happening in Week 1 against Miami and I thought they'd cleaned that up. But they're going to have to, starting today or Dak Prescott will vivisect them on those routes.
--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote: "Relax, Jonesy. You sold me." - Capt. Bart Mancuso, "The Hunt for Red October"
--I just want to remind everyone that if Bolden is taking a pitch and following his blockers for 25 yards, it's OK to yell "Let's go, Brandon!" and it is not a political statement.
--To be fair to McDaniels, it's worth noting that not only did he put in the wrinkle of those two Wildcat runs, the one that Harris took into the endzone and the one on the final play to Bolden that bled the clock down to nothing. And if I didn't miss my guess, on the first possession, Jones hit Agholor for 11 yards to set up a 1st & goal on what to me looked like an RPO. Which was a staple of his at Alabama but hasn't been at all a part of the Patriots playbook so far. I'd like to see more of it. Especially since Jones is killing teams with play action:
--This is exactly the Hunter Henry I'd always hoped to see in New England back when Belichick was making hearteyes at him from across the field whenever he faced the Chargers. Lining up out wide (five times), inline (six), in the slot (18). Run blocking. Pass blocking. Running that Yankee Concept deep crosser again for 21 yards. And picking up five 1st downs when he wasn't catching one in the end zone. When you realize that he and Smith combined for eight catches and 102 yards and that's about half the production they got out of the tight end spot all last season, you learn to appreciate them spending all that money last spring. And of course, I include Judon and Mills in that as well.
--For all the mental lapses the Pats are still committing, it's good to know some teams are still willing to return the favor. That fake faked punt being a classic example. A coaching staff that had been taking all sorts of risks, going for it on 4th, letting a rookie throw it all over the field and everything working out for them, just started falling in love with the smell of their own gas and pulled this boner:
Credit to Lawrence Guy for shoving his blocker back and into the kick. But that was one of the worst examples of punt team dumbassery since the legendary one by the Colts.
--Finally, if you're someone who's really terribly sick, perhaps you've been diagnosed with something terminal and entering hospice care, my advice to you is that you hang in there. That 6th round pick we're getting for Stephon Gilmore is only 18 or so months away. And it'll be worth staying alive for, I'm sure.