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Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 6: Patriots vs. Cowboys

Things to consider while noticing that being 2-4 is starting to physically beat up Bill Belichick:

--A couple of weeks ago, a guy reached out to me to tell me something I didn't know. He said that when they were filming "Ghostbusters" (the only "Ghostbusters" that's worth reaching out to someone to talk about), that they put an extra heavy proton pack on Bill Murray. The reason being that they realized a miserable Murray did better work than a happy Murray. He mentioned this because to him, miserable Thornton is a better writer than happy Thornton. While I'm happy to take a Bill Murray comparison any time it's offered up, I leave it to others to decide if his point is accurate. And if it is, then what you're about to get is going to be some of my finest (read: most miserable) work ever. Because I am weapons grade miserable after this one. I've strapped on a proton pack filled with bricks of depleted uranium. If misery equals quality work, then I'm ready to be "Stripes" through "Kingpin" peak Murray. But I'd rather the Pats start winning so I can be happy, like "Charlie's Angels" and "Garfield" lazy, disinterested, mailing-it-in-for-the-paycheck Murray.

--This is how you get when your team gets exposed for what they are. They're going to play to the level of their opponent. Which is to say, keep it close every week, barely beating the terrible teams, while always letting the good teams find a way to win. The way the Patriots used to. 

--And I do mean they're getting exposed. Yes, there are some terrific plays and encouraging signs. But you can say that about any 2-4 team. When they give up a team record 567 yards, 445 through the air, and let Dallas drive into at least field goal range on nine of their 11 possessions, that's exposure. And coming off a game where they made Davis Mills look like zero carb Dak Prescott seltzer, those numbers are not a fluke. All you can reasonably say this is what they are. If this team was your kid, he'd be flunking out of community college, playing 12 hours of Fortnight a day, running up your credit card getting food delivered, and the body cam footage of his flunked field sobriety test just went viral. You can still love him for all the good times and believe he can get his hash settled soon. But you have to face the reality of what he is right now. And it is not good. 

--Dallas' offense - and please stop me if you've heard this before - can beat you in a lot of ways. You might even say all the ways. Particularly with play actions and rolling pockets and Prescott extending plays to get guys open deep. So it was not at all unreasonable to expect Steve Belichick would try to contain all that. Play a lot of deep coverages. The dreaded Bend but Don't Break defense that is on every engaged quarterback's wedding registry. And always gets the most sincere Thank You note. And a few times there, it really did bend without breaking. There were some fantastic stops and turnovers. But for the most part, it not only broke, it was too limp to even bend. It had no elasticity whatsoever. It laid there like one of those 1/4" resistance bands the old women at the gym use in Pilates class because they don't offer resistance. 

--I get the logic behind keeping CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper and Dalton Schultz in front of you. So the Pats played a lot of Cover-3 with the corners dropping in the deep outside thirds, and a ton of off-man. Then stiffening up in the red area with some man mixed with zone along the goal line, like the interception, which was a great bit of coverage by Justin Bethel:

But this was coverage so off as to qualify as social distancing. If those cushions were any softer they'd be made of Giza cotton and advertised on Fox News. For a while there Prescott was merely taking what they were giving him, working the flats and the middle hole. But when it became necessary/advantageous to hit the deep throws - particularly the seams where the opens are in Cover-3 - he met no resistance there either. 

--No completion did more damage than the 24 yard hookup with Lamb on 3rd & 25. A penalty had pushed Dallas back to 13 yards beyond the field goal target line. And they ran a sort of Sit-Glance route, where the inside receiver settles in under the coverage and the outside guy reads the safety. If it's Cover-2, he goes vertical. If it's Quarters and there's someone over him, he runs a Dig. In this case, Prescott found the "Sit" receiver Lamb dusting off Jalen Mills and hit him in stride:

--Worse than the way the Pats secondary kept their distance from the receivers is the way the Front-7 avoided all social gatherings in the backfield. They left Prescott in such splendid isolation, I doubt he threw his uniform in the hamper afterwards. He could've just given it the sniff test and hung it back up in his locker. Never mind that he had 51 dropbacks without getting sacked. I don't remember him getting hit. 

--What's especially frustrating is how, despite the fact Belichick went with a lot of nickel and dime packages, they still had no answer for Prescott moving the pocket. All game long it was misdirection, boot action rollout, pass complete. Misdirection, boot action rollout, pass complete. Even with five and six in coverage, and with Kyle Dugger or Adrian Phillips down underneath as Lurk defenders or spying Presscott, they were utterly defenseless against that one play. It got to the point that if Kellen Moore wasn't calling it, he was committing malpractice. By the overtime, he was calling it on every down, probably suppressing the urge to just go with a straight 7-step drop, just out of sheer boredom. 

--But the defense was so gassed at that point he kept it up. And used it finally to put them out of their misery in what was pretty much an act of mercy at that point. The killshot actually came on a rare 0-blitz, which left Mills iso'd on Lamb. No contest.

--And the defense was exhausted by that point, in spite of all their rotating bodies in and out. Allowing Dallas to run 82 plays and possess the ball for almost 40 minutes will tucker you out. But it's not entirely on them. In the middle of the game, the Pats offense once again inexplicably got conservative enough to, well, to advertise pillows made of Giza cotton. They bracketed half time with four straight 3 & outs, two before and two after, that took a grand total of 7:55 off the clock. The hardest of those possessions to explic is the one just before the half. The defense made this incredible goal line stand. Facing a 1st & goal at the 1, with a tackle reporting as eligible, Ju'Whan Bentley stuffed Ezekiel Elliot. Followed by Kyle Dugger slicing in to stop Elliot. Then Matt Judon came flying in "Matrix"-style to stop Prescott up the middle. Then Bentley got payback for Damien Harris' fumble last week. Because the Goal Line Punch Out taketh away, and the Goal Line Punch Out giveth:

So with that change of fortune, that momentum shift, all that positive emotion, on the field and in the stands, with a 14-10 lead intact instead of going into the half down by three, with a minute and a half to go and two time outs, Belichick opts to run a dive play and then the clock run out. Just to all the wind out of the sails. It made no sense. Especially on a team that used to live for the chance to kick opponents in the ass as they were going into the locker room and then knee them in the nads as soon as they came out. 

--And all that excess of caution played into other decisions too. Short yardage, high leverage opportunities where Belichick opted to to take the timid man's way out instead of trying to bayonet the Cowboys. Three times they had manageable 4th downs near midfield and punted away, the most damaging of which was a 4th & 3 at their 46 in overtime. Because Dallas had scored on three of their previous four possessions and missed a field goal try on the other and the odds of them stopping Prescott were miniscule. It was like overtime of Super Bowl LI, where you realized if they played eight more quarters, Atlanta was never going to make another stop. At that point, Belichick's squad had somehow managed to play a superior opponent to a draw, and the situation called for throwing caution to the wind. A stupid and futile gesture. But for whatever reason, and I think it might still be the lack of a guy they trust as much as James White in a situation like that, they played it "safe." And it cost them. 

--Then again, they may still just be concerned with putting too much on Mac Jones. And if so, then I agree with them even less. Jones is their number one bright spot, and his spot is getting brighter. That Pick-6 he threw to Trevon Diggs felt fatal at the time. And it made you wonder if it would make the rookie turtle. But instead he went to the sidelines, realized that you can feel many ways about being picked by Diggs, just not special. Because that is not an exclusive club and its membership is growing by the game. So he righted himself. Stayed aggressive. Read the middle of the field open for Kendrick Bourne running an out-and-up on Diggs, with the safety rotating over from the backside of the play (where he'd cheated over to help on Jakobi Meyers on a Go route) and Diggs still tired from running all those return yards, and delivered this absolute laser blast:

I don't discount the possibility that Belichick and Josh McDaniels are thinking more long term with Jones and trying not to rely on him too much and damage his psyche in the process. If so, they can forget that. This two play sequence tells us everything we need to know about McCorkle's mental toughness. 

--Though we can't complain too much, because his touchdown to Hunter Henry made it now three weeks in a row that Jones has actually thrown a ball into the end zone, twice to Henry and that uncontested goal line toss to Jonnu Smith in the Tampa game. On this one, it was a play action out of a 2X2 spread. The fake to Damien Harris kept Leighton Vander Esch from dropping into the deep middle for a sort of Tampa-2. With Nelson Agholor running a deep corner, Henry gave the hard sell to an out cut, got Malik Hooker to flip his hips and then broke up the seam. Jones, reading the linebacker, saw that window developing before Henry made his second move and put the ball right through the opening:

--Next to those two, and maybe the 2-point conversion to Meyers where he was backpedaling from pressure and still got enough on it to beat blanket coverage, to me his most impressive throw was a seam route he delivered to Rhamdondre Stevenson. Out of a split backfield, Jones faked the handoff to Smith and then had him open in the flat, but passed up the safe, easy throw in favor of Stevenson, who had three steps on Micah Parsons coming over from the middle of the Dallas front, and put it in his hands. The weakest part of the Cowboys on either side of the ball has been their coverage against tight ends, where they've been among the worst teams in the league. Between utilizing his tight ends as red zone targets and then developing a 245 pound running back as a de facto TE receiving threat, Jones tried to exploit that weakness. Let's hope we get to see more of it going forward. 

--I suppose it'd be natural to tool on the offensive line again. And yes, the strip sack was all on Yodny Cajuste missing his assignment and letting Randy Gregory fly in completely unimpeded. And there was Gregory killing a drive by pushing Isaiah Wynn back into Jones like they were about to attempt a Throw Triple Salchow:

But for the most part, they've improved immeasurably over the last couple of games. I mean, the coaches are still scrambling for answers. Neither Wynn nor Michael Onwenu were healthy enough to start the game, but both ended up in, with Onwenu back to his right tackle spot from last year. I expected the five starters to be a Full House, but they've been discarded and picked up like a Rummy hand. But there's no complaining when the team puts 29 points on the board and Harris goes off for 100. Just don't ask anyone to name the five guys that are lining up from one down to the next.

--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote: 

Loach: "What happened to your nose, Gittes? Somebody slammed a bedroom window on it?"

Jake Gittes: "Nope. Your wife got excited. She crossed her legs a little too quick. You understand what I mean, pal?"

-"Chinatown"

--I suppose I should feel better than I do about this loss. After all, the Cowboys are a wagon. Before he got hurt last year, Prescott was on pace for 6,000 yards. Seriously, he was averaging 370 yards per game. This year those numbers are down because they're going for more of a balanced attack. And getting it. There should be no shame in losing to them in a tough OT struggle. Especially for a rebuilding team. So why don't I take more positives away from this one? 

--Mainly because once again, this is a Patriots team finding ways to lose. In each of their last three games, their rookie QB has put on late drives to put them in a position to win. And thanks to a clanged field goal against Tampa and the inability to stop Dallas at the end of the game and overtime, they're 1-2 in those games. 

--More to the point, they're still doing the stupid things they used to take advantage of when everyone else did them. I thought those happy days were here again when Mike McCarthy just had to Mike McCarthy in the 1st quarter, going for it on 4th in his own end and then wasting a challenge that had zero chance. But then it's New England getting a punt blocked thanks to Jahlani Tavai whiffing on a block (I think). They haven't had a punt blocked on them in years, and it's already happened twice. There was the aforementioned unwillingness to let their quarterback put on a drive at the end of the half or convert 4th downs. Weird calls like taking the Jumbo personnel off the field in favor of a 1-back, 3-WR set and then giving it to Brandon Bolden on a gap run that loses yards. Then there's the lack of the clutch plays they built a Dynasty on, like Agholor's drop:

Which, I should point out, Jones responded to by hitting Meyers over the middle for a 1st down. But Agholor had plenty of green space to work with and a full head of steam, so I assume it would've been a better outcome. And so when you can't make plays for yourself, and you're committing unforced errors, you're naturally going to lose these Jason Bourne bathroom fights. Or you're going to need luck. And all the calls going your way. Which is no way to live.

--I'm going to be honest with you. I don't think this has been my best work. But it's been cathartic. It's a form of Primal Scream Therapy. By expressing how frustrated I am, I'm able to get it all out and I feel better. Granted, there's got to be an easier way to find inner peace than watching this team open the season 0-4 at home. And I'd rather be fat, happy and in first place in the division. But at least the quarterback looks good and this offense can now finish drives score points. Now if they can just clean up literally every other aspect, we might have something. 

--Thanks for listening. You saved me from having to call one of those online therapists. 

--Thank God the Jets are next week. Hopefully we can still count on them. But I don't know anymore.