I’m Things to consider while being grateful the vicious, homicidal maniac known as Mac Jones only killed an entire franchise, instead of doing something unforgivable like grab an ankle:
--I'm not saying this is total vindication for Bill Belichick. That comes later, when a playoff spot is clinched and possibly a home game in the postseason and a win or two. For now though, his team has put the league on notice. The scored 45 unanswered points against a playoff team that won 41-16 last week. They ran for 184 yards against a run defense that was averaging 85 yards allowed on the ground. Not counting the kneel downs at the end of the game, they had eight possessions, six ended with touchdowns, another on a field goal, and one punt. They had the highest passer rating Cleveland has allowed all season, and the Browns have played Patrick Mahomes, Kyler Murray and Justin Herbert. They put together touchdown drives of 92, 95, and 99.99 yards. They're winners of four straight, a stretch in which they've outscored opponents 150 to 50. If you go by the Bill Parcells theory - as I do - that it takes the first third of the season for a team to figure out who they are, then we have a very good handle on who the 2021 Patriots are. They're physical, punishing, and tougher than a Waffle House steak on both sides of the ball. They've cleaned up the mental mistakes that were costing them early in the season. They'll beat you in the turnover battle and in special teams. Both offensively and defensively they can transmogrify into whatever a specific game plan calls for. And they are a team no one should want to face.
--What I am saying is that this is at least validation for Bill Belichick. GM Bill got himself in the unique position to exploit an anomaly in the free agent market. And the same critics who'd always hammered him for shopping at the Family Dollar Store when everyone else was buying nice things responded like he'd betrayed everything he stood for. They accused him of panicking because Tom Brady had pantsed him by winning a Super Bowl without him. Talked like he'd signed contracts in his own blood. "Getting back into contention will cost you $232 million, $160 million guaranteed ... AND YOUR SOUL." When what he was actually doing was taking advantage of market forces he saw coming that no one else did. And those same haters who were calling for him to have the power to run his draft board stripped from him have to sit and watch while he rolls out three rookies playing superlative football and at least two second year guys playing critical roles. It's funny how the anonymous sources that say he vetoed all the smarter people in the room to draft N'Keal Harry over their objections of their wise council have nothing to say when it comes to Mac Jones, Christian Barmore, Rhamondre Stevenson, Kyle Dugger and Michael Onwenu.
--For Coach Bill, he's figured out how to use the talent GM Bill gave him to do what he does best: Make you play
lefthanded with your opposite hand (I'm not going to assert my Right Privilege). He's transitioned his defense from a man coverage based scheme built around Stephon Gilmore to a zone system, while adding layers to his blitz package as we've gone along. And offensively he's retooled last season's 1932 Akron Pros playbook into a balanced, efficient attack that makes you have to defend the whole field and can switch from a power run game behind a fullback to a spread passing game seemingly at will. These have to be dark times indeed for the "It was Brady all along" crowd.
--And before we get into this game specifically, this 45-7 disintegration was happening while Pittsburgh was tying the only winless team in football at home. Brady was losing to a very average Washington team. And Thursday night's opponent Atlanta was getting beaten by Dallas 43-3. Meaning the only thing standing between the weekend and already matching last year's win total is a team that lost by 40 to someone the Pats played even with for 60 minutes. Then they get the extra long week to get ready for Tennessee. And this win gives them a 68% chance to make the playoffs. Yes, there's a long way still to go. But as we speak, everything's coming up Bill.
--Pop quiz, Hotshot: Hunter Henry's two touchdowns yesterday were one more than the entire tight end depth chart had all of last season. And equaled the entire total of 2019's tight end room. His seven TDs lead the team. Without looking it up, who led the 2020 Patriots in touchdown catches, and how many did he have? Answer below.
--There's so much to unpack here, but I'm going to begin with everyone's favorite "START HERE" on this game board, Mac Jones. The most surprising thing about this performance was having him come off the field - and for the record, this was the third time Brian Hoyer has seen the field for all the right reasons, whereas last year we saw the backup QB come in three times for all the wrong reasons - and see he had less than 200 passing yards. It felt like twice that. Hell, it felt like he had 200 yards just converting 3rd downs. In the 1st half alone, he'd converted six of seven. He had four incompletions, one of which was a straight drop by Stevenson, one was a throwaway, and another was a flare route batted down at the line. His decision-making, which has always been quick, was so fast you'd need the Hadron Particle Collider to measure it. Like that quick game TD to Hunter Henry above, where he stood in the pocket waiting for the defender on Henry, John Johnson (if that's your real name) to jump to outside leverage before drilling the laser strike into his ribs.
--We'll all remember that touchdown pass to Kendrick Bourne because it was without question one of the 10 best plays of the season so far. (And you have to appreciate Bourne knocking down both guys in bracket coverage like Candlepins, because it means he's assimilating into Masshole Culture.) While it looked like a risky proposition from the moment the ball left his hand, Jones said after that Bourne was his primary read and it appeared as though Johnson as the single high safety was coming from the back side (wide side of the field in this case) and Jones read Bourne as open. But to me the most impressive part was the way Bourne fought through a jam at the line by Troy Hill to get the spacing Jones needed to put him on Missile Lock:
--But while we'll remember that one, my favorite connection of the game was the one that preceded it. In the Chargers game, it felt like the timing was off between Jones and his receivers. But you won't find timing this precise in Fletcher's Jazz class. Jones takes a 3-step drop and the ball is out long before the Brown's rush can get to him. But he puts enough air under the ball for Meyers to get a step on his defender and get under it:
--Again, there's nothing Jones does or anything about the way he conducts his business that gives you the impression he's a rookie. At least until he takes off his helmet on the sidelines and you remember he looks like the kid in the Wheaties box frame his mom bought on Picture Day for dad's office shelf. And sneaky my favorite play he made was this one, facing a 2nd & 11 with a chance to put more points on the board before the half. He got under center and with his cadence got the Browns to declare their intentions. Not liking the look he was getting for the play he had called, he "Alerts," calls "Gold Crease," re-Mikes to No. 44 Sione Takitaki, and Stevenson takes it behind blocks from Henry and Bourne for 16:
--And on that note, the offensive line deserves game balls. Or maybe one they can share; I'm not here to spend Mr. Kraft's money. There's an ugly tendency to judge O-line play as binary. A pass/fail test where everyone is either very, very good or they suck. We ignore them until an Illegal Hands to the Face negates a 1st down, or the quarterback takes a sack and tackle or guard has the misfortune of being in the area, and anti-social loners with anger issues call talk shows to vent about the injustice of it all. Well Myles Garrett is arguably the best defensive end in football. Jadeveon Clowney is at times spectacular. Together they combined for three tackles and one QB hit. More importantly, the Patriots offense rolled up on them for 452 yards. If you can't give credit to an offensive line capable of numbers like that, you simply do not deserve a good offensive line.
--The remarkable thing is that they did it with Michael Onwenu, their best O-lineman, period, playing a limited role. I just assumed that Trent Brown would see the field occasionally as a third tackle in goal line and short yardage Jumbo packages. But they put him in at RT and used Onwenu off the bench. Whether they just felt Brown was a better size matchup for the 6-foot-5 Clowney or what, I haven't the first clue. But it worked, right from the opening drive. On one Jones drop back, Brown undercut a Clowney rush and sent him airborne as Jakobi Meyers caught a slant for a 1st. And Brown rendered him invisible the rest of the way. I know that the Brown they trotted out yesterday was very much the one they won a Super Bowl with (at LT) in 2018, and not at all the one that took so much of Mark Davis' inheritance for two years in Las Vegas. And overall, the unit that was so suspect in the first month or so of the season, has become exactly what we thought they'd be. Which is to say, the strength of this team. The only difference is, now it's much deeper.
--And credit to Josh McDaniels for the way he used them. But also to his game plan overall. Early on inside dive plays and power runs weren't getting anywhere against a loaded tackle box, so he began attacking the edges with reverses to Bourne, fly motions, flare routes to running backs, and screens. The key play in that first touchdown drive was a screen to Brandon Bolden that had Ted Karras, David Andrews and Shaq Mason out front plowing the road for him as he went for 20 down to the Cleveland 3. And to give you some indication of what it looked like from Bolden's POV:
So that screen was the second best formation we saw on the day.
--And once McDaniels got the Browns widening their linebackers to protect the edges, he made counter moves to make them pay for such insolence. Like a fencer in a duel, he came back with a parry (ghost motion by the wide receiver turns into a throwback screen to Stevenson on the final drive of the half) or a thrust (iso lead strong runs, all game long). He's been good for at least one designed rollout per game, and Jones has proven to be surprisingly mobile and accurate on those. I haven't been all that sold on Jakob Johnson, but he is playing the best football of his career. And no play he's made has been better than the two blocks he threw on Stevenson's first touchdown. First, he helped Wynn on his kickout of Takitaki, then bounced up to the second level to take out Denzel Ward:
--Credit too on that one to N'Keal Harry for pinning Takkarist McKinley inside. That's becoming a common theme of Harry's season. Teams pretty much know when he's in, it's a run play. But they're not stopping it. On the play that proceeded his 26-yard reception, with the Pats backed up in their own end, Harry earholed Grant Delpit to spring JJ Taylor and give his team some breathing room. Still, it was great to see that over the shoulder grab by him, which was arguably the best catch of his career. Better still was the reaction by the Patriots bench on that one. It's obvious by the way they went ballistic on him that he's a popular teammate. And all they can do with the time left on his rookie deal is to find some use for him and get some return on that investment. It's depressing to think about, but at this point, if he ever wins a game for this team, it'll be the first.
--Speaking of reactions from teammates, what can you say? This moment for Jakobi Meyers felt like when a youth team gets up on an opponent enough that they put the small kid who plays safety on the JV squad into the varsity game so he can get some carries as a reward for all the effort he puts in.
--Defensively, I'm still trying to crack the code of what they differently from that opening drive when they couldn't get the Browns off the field to the entire rest of the game. And I've got next to nothing. (Other than an appreciation for how many more replays and extra camera angles you get in a prime time game as opposed to the 1:00 gulag the Pats have been sentenced to this year.) After the game Belichick credited Cleveland for the scripted plays they came in with. Then vaguely alluded to switching up his own schemes after that. But in a shocking turn of events, he didn't elaborate.
--One difference seemed to be that they began with a base 3-4 with Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy on the edge and Dont'a Hightower and Ju'Whaun Bentley at ILBs. Then we got more of Hightower up on the line as the Sam. But that admittedly sounds like fairly minor adjustment given that the difference between the first possession and all the others was the difference between night on Pluto and day on Mercury. (Don't @ me about Pluto not being a planet. They just downgraded it; they didn't Alderaan it.)
--Maybe what the Pats did wasn't so much a dramatic change as what the Browns did. It felt like as soon as Dugger made that interception, they weren't the same team. Baker Mayfield was like an Open Mic comic who had a joke bomb and panics. The audience can smell the flop sweat coming out of his pits and he gets inside his own head and dies a horrible death. The thing is, it was a terrible pick. Dugger was in zone, reading the QB's eyes all the way and ran the route better than David Njoku did. It was almost laughable. Seriously, if Mayfield was that funny in his commercials, I'd like him even more than the guy who teaches people not to be their parents. But he played scared the rest of the way.
--In fact, he probably should've been picked off a few more times. On one in particular, he motioned Anthony Schwartz across the formation to set up a trips left, JC Jackson stayed with Schwartz as the three bunch defenders communicated a Lock & Level call, where they stagger their alignment to take away pick routes, and Jackson undercut Schwartz' break but couldn't hang on. Like we said last week, no one is benefiting more from the new direction this defense is heading in than Jackson.
--Once the Pats got up 21-7 after the Bourne touchdown, the game followed a familiar pattern. They played a lot of disguised coverages on the back end, two deep safeties pre-snap became Dugger or Adrian Phillips dropping down as the Lurk defender, while Devin McCourty stayed back as "deeper than the deepest" post safety. On some of the later Cleveland drives we saw some off man that might have actually been Quarters or Quarter-Quarter-Half. But it became a top-down scheme that basically dared the Browns to run or keep checking down. And they opted instead to keep taking deep shots into the very coverages the Pats were playing. With predictable results.
--And in another familiar pattern we've learned to absolutely come to expect, the pass rush got more effective as the game went on. Don't get me wrong, Judon is a force of nature from the first snap. But once he starts wearing down the protection, he becomes an extinction level event. He was credited with half a sack and three QB hits (including the one that took out Mayfield), but he was in the backfield disrupting plays in ways they don't have stats for a lot more than that. We're also seeing the Belichicks draw up ways to overload one side or another to get Judon either iso'd on a blocker or left unaccounted for. On one, they lined Hightower up inside him, who shot the G-T gap as Judon came wide, leaving the tackle to pick his poison. He chose Hightower and Judon came free. The monster under ever QB's bed has red sleeves.
--Possibly the most improved player on this defense year-to-year is Bentley. That play in the 3rd when he read the handoff to D'Ernest Johnson, fired through the gap and met him practically at the mesh point was almost surreal. Like his Spidey Senses tingled before the ball was even snapped. Nothing could make this week better like someone on the Browns complaining New England had stolen their calls.
--If I have to pick someone who's been a crushing let down, it's Josh Uche. I assumed he'd be damned near impossible to stop. And he's not even a factor. Unless he's committing a penalty or somehow not recovering a loose ball that's right underneath him. I still don't know how that fumble eluded him. It was like a Penn & Teller trick where they make solid objects pass right through Teller's body. Maybe Uche will start making impact plays. But if you'd told me in camp that halfway through the season he'd be just a garbage time depth guy, I never would've believed you.
--"He did it. The son of a bitch, he did it." - Ian Malcolm, "Jurassic Park"
--Quiz answer: Rex Burkhead. He had three touchdown catches on the season. Last year feels more and more like a blackout drunk we all had. And anything we said during it are just the texts we never should've sent.
--Still, good for Cam Newton. He deserves this.
I'm glad Newton has moved on. But I'm infinitely happier that the Patriots did too.