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Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 12: Patriots vs. Titans

Things to consider while offering further proof that the truly great ones can always find a way to turn things around:

--Enjoy this. It's OK to feel OK about it. The Tennessee game is one that all of us, at some time or another, circled on the schedule as a probable loss. And even while we can acknowledge that the Titans were missing their most important component as well as their top two wideouts, every game against them is an alley fight using broken bottles and trash can lids and 23-point wins where you outscore them 20-0 in the 2nd half simply do not happen and deserve to be appreciated. 

--And no one seems to be enjoying this more than Bill Belichick. Not that he came across as delighted and blithesome in the postgame. In fact, just the opposite. He was visibly cheesed off about his defense's inability to stop the run and the dozens of points his offense missed out on. Which is the source of his inner joy. Like I said after the win over Houston, nothing makes his heart grow more than an impressive yet far from perfect win. At his core, he's a fixer. He's Scotty, glad if no one on the Enterprise is getting killed and all, but ultimately never happier than when he's solving problems with the warp drive, the transporter, and the deflector shields. In this case, the coach will get to stand before his team that just moved into the No. 2 spot in the AFC playoff picture and rant about how they need to reroute the impulse power through the Dylithium crystals and if they reverse the polarity on the warp core couplets, then maybe, just maybe, get them out of this mess. And that's what makes Belichick the best goddamned engineer in the fleet. 

--That said, going by the old Bill Parcells adage that says by the last third of the schedule you know who you are, we know this Patriots team is tough, smart, opportunistic and versatile. Their struggles with tackling yesterday notwithstanding, they hit. On both sides of the ball. I can never remember hearing so many hushed toned, "We'll take a time out while the training staff takes a look at him," commercial breaks in my life, and invariably it's an opponent. And not from cheap shots. The 2021 Patriots just grind teams down and peak late in games. They're beating teams down, forcing errors and then capitalizing on them. They've severely reduced the number of pre-snap penalties they were making in the first month or so. And you almost never see the kinds of unnecessary, field-flipping penalties like the one where Jackrabbit Jenkins tacked a facemask onto the end of a big catch and run by Kendrick Bourne out of this team. And when they don't turn the ball over, there aren't many options available for beating them.

--Before we get into what went right, it feels like it's best to get the bad juju out of the way first. There are a lot of thing that went wrong in the run defense, as one would assume with a total system failure like we just witnessed. With so many unknown variables on the Titans offense, Steve Belichick seemed to take the usual "Let's see what we've got here" approach, trying to solve for X. On the first possession, he came out in a straight up old school vanilla 3-4 with his down linemen 2-gapping between Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy on the edges. And it worked to perfection. The Titans lost yards and punted. Thanks to Judon beating David Quessenberry deep for the sack. Though on further review, watch Christian Barmore inside of Judon. He not only stood up against a double team from the guard and center, he got in the way of the pulling guard who then trucked his own running back trying to release into the flat, blowing up the play and giving Judon time to polish Ryan Tannehill off:

[VH1's "Behind the Music" narrator voice]: Everything seemed to be going the Patriots defense's way. They were on a meteoric rise to the top of the charts. But what they didn't know, is that their success would be short lived...

--On the subsequent possession, Belichick the Younger switched them back to their base Big Nickel, with Kyle Dugger or Adrian Phillips occupying the middle in the hybrid safety/linebacker role. And that arrangement got positively shredded. On 17 plays, 69 yards, five 1st downs and more than eight minutes off the clock. With just four of those plays passes, including the touchdown. Speaking of which, the thing that makes Mike Vrabel one of the best in the business is that he was obviously paying attention all his years in New England. And taking notes on all the finer points of his old boss' game:

The question is why anyone would train under this Jedi Master and not learn the proper way to throw a challenge flag in disgust? Are the rest of them just afraid of success? 

--By the time Dontrell Hilliard was busting that 68-yard run, they still hadn't adjusted to the fact Tennessee was going to win or lose this one on the ground and not press their luck with Tannehill. When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, and all that. Facing a 3rd & 3, they played it like a 3rd & 23, with Barmore as the only down lineman and Van Noy and Dont'a Hightower up in the gaps, with Dugger coming off the edge and Phillips as the only defender on the second level. The two linebackers got sealed off by solo blocks, Dugger was a step late, Phillips took a step into the backfield as Hilliard hit his hole, and Devin McCourty took the rare Meriweatherian Geometry angle and couldn't make the recovery tackle:

So it was a system-wide failure. A bad plan, poorly executed. What's truly scary is that, from that point until the lead had opened up so wide that Tannehill had to start throwing, the Pats loaded the box and still got run on. And not by anything elaborate to keep them off balance . No exotic schemes with pulls and traps and whatnot. Just gap runs with double teams at the point of attack. And the Patriots had no answers for it. There was no Queen Latifah they could call to jump down off a fire escape with her gun drawn and Equalize this shit. It hasn't been a chronic problem to this point. Their run defense overall has been good to this point. They have big bodies they can rotate in and out in the front-7. So we have every reason to think this is correctable. If not, well then they're going to have to rely on their offense to finish more drives and open up double digit leads and take the hammer out of the hands of teams like Tennessee. If you're one of those post-modernists who think running/stopping the run is a joke and you don't need to do either to win in this league, you look at 39 attempts for 270 yards producing just 13 points as Exhibit A that makes your point. But I promise you the Belichick family tree does not agree with you. And it's going to be an all out effort to make sure they clean this up before they face the Colts in a few weeks, if not by the end of today.

--One sequence I feel especially good about was the goal line stand that ended in (stop me if you've heard this before) the JC Jackson interception. Specifically, the 2nd & goal from the 4. Tennessee came out in a Jumbo package, with three tight ends and a tackle eligible, and the Patriots were in a heavy set to counter it. But then Tannehill spread them out and the Pats had to react. They made the adjustments, communicated with everyone, knew their assignments, had everyone covered and Van Noy broke up the pass intended for MyCole Pruitt. A play later, Dugger and McCourty came off the corner to stuff D'Onta Foreman. And on 4th, McCourty got his hand in the passing lane and the man who attracts errant passes the way I attracted smokin' hot babes in my single days left the club with this one:

At least that's what happened on that stand according to my "Romo In Your Ear." Without it, I'm just guessing.

--I've gone way too long without talking about it, and I won't type another paragraph until we've stopped ignoring it and address the elephant in the room. Janoris Jenkins is now Jackrabbit. There are so many questions. Starting with, when did this happen? A well known veteran guy doesn't just change his name and you find out about it casually in a Week 12 1:00 game like we're all supposed to have known about. Especially when said name sounds like some varmint Yosemite Sam is after to fill full o' lead. Don't get me wrong, I love it. I feel like it's one of those name changes that will improve your life. Like when Homer Simpson got the name "Max Power" off a hair dryer and started referring to himself in the third person and everyone started to respect him. All I ask is that we have the national dialogue about this move that we've been denied.

--If you're wondering why I've gone this long without mentioning Mac Jones after a career-high 310 yards on 22-of-32, two touchdowns, no turnovers and a 123.2 passer rating, I'm wondering too. If you figure it out, let me know in the comments section. (And remember to Like, Share and Subscribe!) Maybe it's a good sign. Perhaps it says that I'm no longer pleasantly surprised when he plays like an experienced veteran in full command and control of his offense. That we've come to expect he's going to dependably and efficiently move the chains and minimize errors. But that's no excuse for being blase' about what we are witnessing. This is rare for a rookie. And if some of the later games yesterday, like that dog's breakfast served up by Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson for example, are any indication, it's rare around the league in general. And deserves to be appreciated. 

--Jones' game against Tennessee was a departure from what we've come to expect because he was connecting on deep shots - to his wide receivers in particular - but then drives kept stalling in the red zone. Due in part because they were struggling early to run the ball, partly the play calling (that one drive where they'd moved the ball through the air to set up a 1st & goal only to have two rushes get stuffed and an incompletion later it was time to call in Big Kick Nick again), but also because Jones simply missed throws. That one where he overthrew Hunter Henry who was breaking for the corner away from the post safety being the most obvious. The one he mishandled and threw into the turf on a little swing route by Bourne being the weirdest. And the one he forced to Jonnu Smith with Dylan Cole blanketing his route that should've been an easy Pick-6 being the most egregious. But the real story is how many stellar, American Sniper-accurate throws he made. Against a very good team. In his first cold weather game. And, oh yeah, how he was the best quarterback in the league this weekend:

--Beginning with, but by no means limited to, this one he delivered to Bourne over Kevin Byard. It was man coverage across the board with the Pats in empty set, and the trips on the right ran a man beater combo, with Jakobi Meyers and Nelson Agholor running in-cuts then sitting on the goal line to draw their defenders up, while Bourne ran a corner route from the slot behind them. Jones knew exactly where he was going with it before the snap. And his ball placement reminded me of this time I turned on Howard Stern's old Channel 9 show and they were at a beach house feeding girls in bikinis hot dogs dangling from the ends of fishing rods:

One, that's an amazing touch pass. Two, our culture is poorer for Howard become civilized on us.

--Though nothing compares to the bomb he hit Meyers with. Jones had the pocket awareness to let Trent Brown keep fighting with Denico Autry while the routes developed. We never really got a wide angle of the field (the curse of being on the early broadcast), but it seems to me that Meyers and Henry ran a sort of deep scissors combo, but from opposite sides of the formation, crossing at the 12 yard mark. It's sort of vertical concept you run against pattern match zones to make them have to play more like man coverage. Meyers said after he didn't expect the ball, which is wild because he had to deal with Byard coming across and nearly getting a hand on it. But he stayed dialed in and got his hands on it. Though if he hadn't, the ball probably would've just lodged in his facemask anyway, it was coming in so hot:

--And yet that might have been Meyers' second best play. I absolutely loved how he reacted in the moment on Bourne's second touchdown. He found himself upfield needing to help spring Bourne, but knew if he blocked back away from his own end zone, he'd get flagged and wipe out the play. So instead he just held his ground. He ran the pick and roll. That kind of situational awareness is exactly what this team was lacking in September. But now is what we've come to expect. And it wins games:

--I take a back seat to no man when it comes to my appreciation for Jones' big throws. Clearly. Don't test me on that. I'll love them longer and harder than you could ever hope to. But my favorite moments from him are the ones where he demonstrates his full understanding of the scheme he is running. Like the 3rd & 10 screen to Brandon Bolden on the first drive. He set it up with a pump fake to a WR screen to Bourne on the other side then hit Bolden with the throwback. Backside action on a play like that stresses a defense by forcing them to account for all 53 1/3. It sounds simple enough, but if everyone could do it, everyone would. 

--Meanwhile, Jones is doing all that while the last QB to be drafted by this franchise in the 1st round was looking on with a sweater jauntily tied around his shoulders, enjoying the notes of juniper and oaky finish of a fine Shiraz.:

I don't care who you are or what your tastes are. The fact you're looking into one of your possible futures and might end up as Niles Crane has to put pressure on a rookie. I will always appreciate Bledsoe and all he did here. But Foxboro is a "Beer in the Cheap Seats" town. A Stephen Gostkowski kind of place:

OK, he had a coffee or hot chocolate. But in my heart, he's Irished it up, whatever it was. Gost is a man of the people. 

--It was good to see Jonnu Smith getting more involved. Four catches on four targets and 54 yards, plus a carry, that's his most production in a game so far. But regardless, he and Henry are legitimate threats that defenses have to account for. And it's having the intended effect on the rest of the skill positions. Get a load of this:

--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote, TIE: 

"The Old Man could replace fuses faster than a jackrabbit on a date." - Ralphie, "A Christmas Story"

And: 

Vincent Vega: "The fuck is this place?"

Mia Wallace: "This is Jackrabbit Slim's. An Elvis man should love it." - "Pulp Fiction"

--Just to further illustrate the point that this is a versatile team that can beat you in different ways, after a half of football watching Jeffrey Simmons and the Titans' interior linemen stuff the Pats inside run game, Josh McDaniels started working the edges and got their own Derrick Henry Lite snowplowing guys. What I especially like on this one is the way Henry downblocks on the end, and both guards pull, with Ted Karras leading to throw a kickout on corner Kristian Fulton coming up in run force, and Shaq Mason taking the linebacker penetrating off the back, while Isaiah Wynn is 10 yards into the secondary, blocking to the whistle. Actually, I like those second most. Behing watching Rhamondre Stevenson earhole tacklers. This will never get old.

--I'll just end with this. Jones and Damien Harris, hanging out together in high school, at Alabama, and now New England. I don't know what else to do with it. Other than offer it as proof there's a glitch in the Matrix:

If so, I'm taking the blue pill. I want to stay in this 2021 Patriots reality. 

--The Buffalo game can't get here soon enough.