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Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 9: Patriots vs. Panthers

Things to consider while remembering Sun Tzu's words that every battle is decided before it is fought:

--To put this game into it's proper perspective, let's get all hypothetical up in this piece. Let's say I told you that in the middle of the season, the Patriots would go on the road to face a Carolina team with the same record as them. That the Panthers tough, aggressive defense would hold Mac Jones to 12-for-18 passing for 139 yards with one touchdown and a pick. That the Pats entire wide receiver depth chart would combine for four catches and 42 yards with no scores. That Damien Harris would finish with just 30 yards on 15 carries. The Pats would turn the ball over twice on their own side of the field. Brian Hoyer would finish the game. And all this while Buffalo was playing Jacksonville. If you said sounded to you like a blowout win and New England a half game out in the AFC East with eight to play, then you're one loud fart in front of the Royal family from being legally declared non compos mentis. But you'd have been correct. (Just like you'd be correct to let loose in front of the Duchess of Cornwall. That shart is the sound of freedom, and the original Patriots who bled the Lexington Green red would salute you.)

--The fact is the Pats are one of the hottest teams in the league. They've won three straight. In that stretch they've outscored opponents more than 2.5-to-1 (105 to 40). And since that Week 6 loss to Dallas they're scoring 33.5 points per game. Perhaps best of all for Bill Belichick, they're doing it all without playing their best football. Like a good handyman, or a girl dating a handsome rebel with a troubled past who plays by his own rules, above all else Coach Bill loves having things he can fix. And is offense is still giving him plenty to work on, despite the results they're getting. 

--Unforced errors like false start penalties. Problems with the protection schemes. Jones throwing a bad interception. Negative plays all over the place killing drives. On the first possession sloppy errors put them in a 2nd & 25. Then a nice run by Brandon Bolden got them into 3rd & makeable. Only to have Jakobi Meyers at the sticks slap a perfectly thrown pass around like a grizzly catching a salmon and turn a 1st into a 4th & 1 punt. Like everyone's sister-in-law has red pajamas for watching Hallmark Christmas movies, Belichick needs sweats that read, "I Love Victory Mondays and Game Film With Lots of Mistakes to Clean Up." 

--Speaking of that 4th & 1 punt, I, like all of you, was frustrated by the unwillingness to go for it with the ball at midfield like that. It's been a common theme all season. And yet, as the game played out, I came around on the reasoning. I think the decision to punt was less an indictment of Jones' ability to pick up a yard as much as it was a statement on how much confidence Belichick had in his defense's ability to control the game. Even when the punt flew 55 yards into the end zone, sort of minimizing the benefit of kicking it away in the first place, the subsequent Panthers drive netted them six yards and the Pats got the ball back at their own 40 with a fresh set of downs. Yes, it's almost Breitbart levels of ultra-conservative game management. But it's a feature, not a bug. He's doing it this way intentionally. Which is pretty much the way he was calling shots in 2001 with a first year starter at quarterback. Playing it relatively safely on offense, keeping the ball on the ground to the extent it can work, and letting his defense and special teams win games. We can disagree with the judgment sometimes. But more than halfway through the schedule now, we need to accept that how he's approaching these sorts of high leverage moments, he's doing with a purpose.

--And it's working. That defense he's trusting is, in fact, winning games. For the third week in a row they found themselves with a youngish quarterback, Incepted three levels deep into his subconscious, and had him not knowing him dream state from his reality. It's astonishing when you consider how they simply had no answers for Dallas just four games ago and made Davis Mills look like 1995 Steve Young the week before that. But it's looking now like those games were the outliers. And the number they did on Tom Brady in the GOATerdammerung epic is closer to what they actually are.

--It's remarkable how they've managed to completely flip their style of play in such a short period of time. In 2019 they led the league in defense while playing man coverage as much as anyone. Particularly on 3rd downs, where they played some version of it (typically Cover-1 or Cover-0) 84% of the time, giving up just four TDs to 11 INTs. I don't know the percentages at the moment (I hope to soon), but it feels like they are a predominant zone team now. Playing a lot of pattern match, wherein you're given your zone to patrol, but with man responsibilities based on recognition of the route concepts, when the receiver is in your zone. With a typically two deep shell, most often with Kyle Dugger as the Lurk or Robot defender, taking the underneath middle. It makes sense to have morphed into that, given they no longer have a Stephon Gilmore they can just assign to the opponent's top target and a Jonathan Jones they can put on the slot receiver. But still, it's been the fasted transformation of  a highly successful system since the Meiji Restoration. Or Optimus Prime.

--They turned those two turnovers into the only six points they gave up all game. They more or less held Christian McCaffery in check. They once again had Scooby Darnold seeing ghosts. And JC Jackson had more catches (two) and yards (88) than Robby Anderson (one for two yards). 

--And the keys to the whole transition have been Matt Judon and Christian Barmore. Two additions to this group that you can leave out there on every down, trust they won't get run on (like, say, Josh Uche), but can generate pressure in a four-man rush. The key to zone is to be able to drop seven into coverage. (Even Dick LeBeau's celebrated zone blitz scheme was centered around the idea of "safe pressure" where you might only have six in coverage but some would drop from the front into the underneath zones and confuse the inexperienced.) Thanks to Judon and Barmore, the Pats rarely need to dial up extra rushers and instead can flood the passing routes with bodies while limiting QBs time to throw.

--Get a load of these farking guys. Barmore not being fooled at all by the misdirection on a designed rollout and chasing Sam Darnold from his 5-tech position while Judon releases Terrace Marshall into his route and comes at Darnold with enough speed to force a bad throw that JC Jackson takes all the way:

--And there was Judon just abusing a 6-foot-6, 325 pound Dennis Daley with a rip-pull move for the sack:

--And while not exactly an impact play, Barmore comes in with the AJ Styles Phenomenal Forearm as his finishing move:

After the game, Barmore said it was because they tell him to keep running to the ball. And why would you want him doing anything less? After getting 63% of the defensive snaps each of the last two weeks, he took a career high 68% yesterday. And spent a preponderance of his time in the Panthers backfield. Watching him on these days when the game plan isn't about keeping a QB in the pocket and containing him, but actually getting after him, has been one of the best parts of this season so far. And Barmore has been everything we'd hoped he'd be on that first day of full contact practices in July when he was earholing blockers all over the line. What a steal he was. 

--While JC Jackson has proven to be a solid, reliable man defender, but possibly no one is benefiting more from the switch to a zone-heavy scheme, which allows him to make better use of his pattern-reading skills instead of hand fighting some 6-foot-4 WR1 all over the field all day. No better case in point than the way he jumped this route while suffocating DJ Moore in the corner. A play - stop me if you've heard this before, made possible by Judon's pressure. This time generated with an inside swim move on Daley, who got away with the Rowdy Roddy Sleeper Hold. (That's my second WWE reference. I've reached my limit.) 

--And the way JCJ benefits from a zone scheme, Jamie Collins is a guy who is at his best when an offense is on its heels and he can start playing downhill. He's the predator in your pack you want attacking the weakest part of the herd. He only played 16 snaps, mostly late in the game, but you certainly couldn't miss him. Of course there was this freakishly athletic play:

But the one before it was peak Collins. Just as Christian McCaffery had started racking up chunk plays, either with deep slants and posts in the middle hole of the Pats defense (and if you've ever had a post in your middle hole … ah, forget it) and outside zone runs, Darnold hit him in the backfield and Collins came in hard and unloaded on him for a three yard loss. That hit and the subsequent pick just further demoralized a team that was already at each other's throats. And on the next defensive series, Myles Bryant came at Moore with bad intent and knocked him out of the game, because that sort of killer instinct can be contagious. I've long ago learned to accept that Collins is never going to win the Nobel Prize in Consistency. But in a sort of closer role, when you're playing with a lead, he can be Mariano Rivera. 

--But really, it was a great day all around for the Front-7. Until the game got out of hand it was pretty much the same four linebackers, Judon (Will) and Kyle Van Noy (Sam) on the outside, with Dont'a Hightower and Ju'Whaun Bentley off the ball. Overall I thought Hightower had his best game of a season where he's struggled some. Yes, he was in coverage on some of those McCaffery slants and got dragged a good five yards by McCaffery like a kid with a Radio Flyer. But he and Bentley, along with Davon Godchaux in the middle of the line, filled a lot of gaps and on at least one outside pitch Hightower was first to the ball for like a two-yard gain.  Anyway, it was progress.

--Getting back to the offense, there were breakdowns along the line, mostly (I think) owing to a plan where protection was supposed to be coming from pulls that were late getting over. Haason Reddick's sack came when Michael Onwenu passed him off to Shaq Mason coming outside on him, but had no shot. Brian Burns' strip sack came when Hunter Henry chipped him before releasing into his route, and Isaiah Wynn couldn't reach him. In the postgame Jones referenced communication problems, saying they were 95% his fault. And he's got his graduate degree from Bama, so he knows math. Everyone will remember those breakdowns and say it's lunacy to say the line played well overall. But when elite rushers like Reddick and Burns come completely free like that, it's safe to say the problem was with the protection calls and everyone not being on the same page more than it is everyone just forgot to block them. 

--Yes, they had problems opening holes for Damien Harris along the interior. Derrick Brown is a problem for everyone. But you have to appreciate the way Josh McDaniels pivoted to stressing the Carolina front with edge runs. Pitches, crack tosses, fly motions with Jonnu Smith. 

--And the biggest beneficiary of the space they created was Rhamdondre Stevenson. You could forgive a 245-pounder if he was just a pure power runner with limited abilities in the open field. But he's got several gears to go along with that punishing finish:

--And Stevenson is showing the burst we saw in preseason when he outran the Washington Football Team's entire Football Secondary. This just defies the laws of physics:

--But who am I shitting? The money shot was Stevenson Gimli-tossing Sean Chandler at the end of this pitch:

Both Stevenson and Harris left the game and didn't return. As did Gunner Olszewski, who was replace on kickoff returns by Stevenson, so we're reaching the bottom of the depth chart there. They were all reported head injuries, so all bets are off on those. I just know that I'd love to see the rookie's ascension not be interrupted by missed games. And this is a team that could use the bye week that still isn't coming for another month.

--I've talked about Mac Jones less than in any Knee Jerk Reaction all season. Actually, I've talked less about him than in any conversation I've had since May. But simply wasn't the focus of this one. Which is a good thing. It proves this team is capable of beating you in a variety pack of ways. He just happens to be one of the major ones. And he provided enough big time throws to get to take off his helmet and make way for Hoyer, the Human Victory Cigar. No throw was as beautiful to behold as the one on the wheel route to Bolden, who has morphed himself into this team's James White replacement somehow. Jones recognized from the snap that Bolden would be iso'd on a linebacker. Which I didn't used to consider a mismatch, but the way Bolden has played since the beginning of October certainly is. 

--I don't have much to add to Jones' touchdown pass to Henry, other than it was exactly how this offense has been drawing it up since Charlie Weis. Low on the goal line, high on the back line, so if your intended target doesn't get it, no one will. Perfect laser, right into Henry's bathing suit area. That makes five TDs for Henry in the last six games. Which, according to NFL Insider Adam Archuleta, makes him Jones' second end zone target, behind only Jakobi Meyers (zero career TDs.) Is this what life is like when your games are always on at 1:00? It's like going to the store and you get to the register and the kid is clearly still in training. Only I'll have all the patience in the world for a high schooler working for gas money. A little show prep shouldn't be too big an ask. 

--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote: "It's called Sex Panther by Odeon. It's illegal in nine countries. Yep, it's made with bits of real panther, so you know it's good." - Brian Fantana, "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy"

--For the second week in a row, New England turned out en masse for a road game. I bet a lot of them were season ticket holders who cashed in on the Tampa and Dallas games and financed trips to LA and/or Charlotte with the proceeds. Regardless, one of the downsides of living in a beautiful, warm weather city is Massholes love nothing more than escaping our Dostoevsky-like dystopian hellscape to come to your town and give you a taste of our miserable existence.

--If I haven't mentioned the Gilmore interception it's not because I'm bitter. It's because I consider it well worth giving up your best defensive player to a team on your schedule. Just wait until the vast treasure that will be that 2023 6th round pick arrives in New England. You'll realize that it was well worth it. 

--"Scooby Darnold?" C'mon, that's gold. The Ghosts are back. Buy a shirt: