Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 16: Patriots vs. Bills
Things to consider while hoping this is the last we hear from Mr. Nice Coach and everything can go back to normal:
--This is yet another week where I'm not going to make any attempts to put a shine on this sneaker. That there is plenty of blame to go around and I intend to keep slopping it on everyone's trays until I've scraped the bottom of the chafing dish pan. If I spare someone, it's either because they either played well (Damien Harris), or because I simply run out of time and energy. Or I assume no one's reading an autopsy report like this one in the middle of a vacation week and I cut it short.
--Regardless, I'm not sparing anyone. Not even the rookie quarterback who was beginning to fill the GOAT-shaped hole in my heart but has begun to shrink as we've hit December. It's the part of the calendar during which college players are accustomed to prepping for a bowl game at the end of the month, not going to classes, and testing the limits of their school's Sexual Conduct policies. And Mac Jones is playing like he's not prepared for it. Particularly at the start of games. But I'll get to him later. There are bigger axes to grind. Starting with the defense.
--On Christmas Day, a rocket was launched carrying the $10 billion James Webb telescope, perhaps the most sophisticated instrument the human race has ever devised. It's exponentially more powerful than the Hubble. It will fly to an orbit around the sun a million miles beyond our world. And from Earth's shadow, will be able to record data to the edge of the recordable universe, and therefore back to the beginning of time itself. To a period 380,000 years after the Big Bang. What is referred to as "the surface of last scattering," when the cosmos was still too dense to emit anything, not even light. So there would be no penetrating that wall. And as James Webb scans all the way across existence itself to the very limits of space and time, it will never find an example of a Bill Belichick defense that failed to produce a single punt. Until this game. That's how bad it was.
--The defense stepped on so many rakes, it's hard to decide which one to pick up first. But here's as good a rake as any: The absolute lack of negative plays. Never mind turnovers. Forget sacks. I'm just talking about stops of any kind. I counted one negative play by the Bills that wasn't the result of a penalty. But I'm an aging drinker whose memory isn't to be trusted, so don't go by me. But the box score backs it up. The Bills ran it 28 times and Josh Allen had 47 pass attempts for a total of 75 plays from scrimmage. And the Patriots recorded one tackle for loss, Kyle Dugger stuffing a Jet sweep by Isaiah McKenzie. And if my faulty memory is correct on this too, I don't think they had more than one stop for no gain.
--The game plan was very clearly to control Allen's pocket, rather than try to apply pressure and allow him to win the game with scrambles, escapes, designed rollouts, and passes completed out of structure. Which is precisely what he did. Early, often and repeatedly. For all of Allen's skills and the way he's put himself into the conversation at least when you list the top quarterbacks in the league, he can still be forced into bad mistakes. But not on this day. On the rare occasions the Patriots got in his face, he found someone open. Or in the case of the Bills second possession, he got away from Kyle Van Noy and ran it for 20+ yards. Even on this one, when the Patriots sent a rare fifth rusher and Christian Barmore got his arms extended for a rip move to defeat Daryl Williams' block and chase Allen out of the pocket, he delivered what should've been a touchdown, but was a turnover on downs:
Otherwise, this game would've gotten so out of reach a lot sooner.
--On the whole, the Pats tried to focus on defending from the top, down. With a lot of Cover-3 shells and even some quarters coverages. Which Allen saw through like ... well like the James Webb telescopes infrared imaging system, which will map the universes vast Dark Matter materials. In the first half, he worked them from inside to out. I lost count of how many times he exploited their middle hole (don't Google that phrase on a work computer). Or how often he hit someone on a sit route in the crease (ditto) between the Pats' zones.
--What I do know is that it was a lot. For the whole first half, it was Death By a Thousand Sit Routes. As Buffalo kept putting themselves in 2nd & short situations. As I was making note of the five downs of 2nd & less-than-5 on the Bills first two scoring drives, they put themselves in two 2nd & 1s on the drive after the half. You simply cannot survive with a 1st down defense like that against anyone, never mind a team with a quarterback who Quantum Leaped into a tight end's body the way Allen has.
--By that opening drive of the 2nd half, Allen adjusted to working outside the numbers as the Patriots went to a more zone-heavy scheme. Featuring a lot of the multiple motions the Bills live off of. Ghost motions that look like a Jet sweep, like the one on this drive where Allen his Emmanuel Sanders on the backside for 9. Tight end motions from Dawson Knox where he blocks the backside end for a run look, but they can play action from. Short motions by receivers to a stack alignment. All of which the Patriots seemed to handle as far as understanding the play design and communicating to each other. For instance on this red zone stop, when Van Noy identified the play, signaled his coverage at the snap, read the running back's flare route and scraped along from the backside of the formation and the defense held:
The fact that, by and large they knew what the challenges were and simply couldn't stop it most of the time, is what makes it all the more disturbing.
--Take, by way of pluperfect example, Myles Bryant. There's no reason to dump on Bryant. He's a UDFA in his second season. He's a project. Still developing. A depth/money package DB who drew the assignment of Isaiah McKenzie, another depth/subpackage guy. On paper, it made total sense. They're both 5-foot-8, 180 pounds. And not to Slot Shame anyone based on their size, but that's where they both tend to operate from. But it was obvious from the opening drive that Bryant was overmatched. It wasn't a matter of a play here or there. He simply could not stay with McKenzie. Adjustments needed to be made, but never were. I'm not saying Joejuan Williams or Shaun Wade would've been the answer, the way bringing in Malcolm Butler when the Seahawks had Kyle Arrington in the torture chamber in XLIX was. Just that we'll never know, because neither of those guys dressed. So well after it was firmly established that Bryant had no hand, he stayed on McKenzie and Allen put Missile Lock on him the rest of the game. It was painful to watch. Culminating with back-to-back completions on that agonizing final touchdown drive. A 17 yarder on 3rd & 10 followed by a 15-yard out route (the one where McKenzie fell on the ball), each of which had a good two-to-three steps of separation. Bryant was living one of those dreams I still have where I'm in school and haven't the first clue what I'm supposed to be doing. Either I don't know my class schedule, or I'm the only one who hasn't done the assignment, or I get handed a test and have never seen these math formulas in my life. Except in Bryant's case, the teacher just kept calling on him, over and over again.
--I meant my use of the word "agonizing about that drive. Twice the Pats got the Bills in 3rd & 10s, twice they converted. First the catch by McKenzie, followed by that ridiculous shovel pass to Stefon Diggs. But then to remember that it all started with JC Jackson dropping a sure interception (one of the few times they had Allen confused. Adrian Phillips showed safety blitz before the snap but then dropped into zone, forcing an overthrow), and that possession violated about 50 treaties on human rights and should've been stopped by Amnesty International.
--Speaking of international cruelty, every time I see those little shits in the GEICO ad destroying a beautiful home with a pool and lawn sprinklers, I want to send them overseas to work in an iPhone factory.
--Simply put, this was the least accurate we've ever seen Mac Jones, save for one or two bad days in training camp. It's not like he was making bad decisions, rushing to get the ball out or too slow making plays develop. There were plenty of times when he showed great pocket awareness, went through his progressions, identified his best option, only to misfire. Seeing him with Stormtrooper aim was actually a surreal experience, just for the fact he's long since established that accuracy is his strong suit. It was like seeing Steph Curry not be able to hit jumpers or Mariano Rivera walking guys or Belichick apologizing for being inconsiderate.
--For instance, there was a play that opened the drive that resulted in the interception, where he scanned the secondary a good three times before patiently waiting for Brandon Bolden to come off his pass protection block and then hit him with a touch pass for 14. And there was this corner route to Jakobi Meyers, thanks to a great A-gap blitz pickup by Harris and with Mario Addison bearing down on him:
But in and among those, there were so many uncharacteristically off-target throws, with intended receivers having to leave their feet to make a Web Gem catch that I started wondering if he was wearing the glove on his throwing hand.
--And granted, the interception was slightly off line. But my beef on that one was with Jones' ball-placement. Meaning, why, at this point, is he placing the ball anywhere near the general direction of N'Keal Harry? Which brings me to …
--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote:
--The interception was one play after Harry dropped a perfectly lofted tight spiral with his defender a good three yards off him. Focus on Harry throughout this play, from start to finish. And show me where he put in maximum effort:
Notwithstanding he sort of waved at the ball with a sort of vague disinterest, once it was tipped, he became a bystander. Once a ball has been batted in the air in the NFL, it's a free-for-all. A glorious moment where all bets are off and no rules apply. It's The Purge. And all those repressed feelings of aggressiveness they've tried to legislate out of the game are back on the menu. And you can see how Matt Milano reacts to those magical seconds, by beating Harry to his knees. But Harry goes through the entire play like he belongs to a public sector labor union, and he's on his contractually obligated break. It's not about questioning his toughness. He took a severe shot to the head last week that could've had him out for the season and he's back already. It's about questioning his urgency. And whether keeping him around beyond the end of this year just to be a blocking receiver is worth the roster spot.
--Though he is a good blocking receiver. Evidenced by his upfield effort on this one against Levi Wallace, alongside Jonnu Smith on Jordan Poyer:
--Which was set up in part by this one on the previous play:
A run option perfectly executed by Jones, followed by a crack-toss to the other side was one of a couple of good sequences by Josh McDaniels. Just like in Buffalo, he forced the Bills to have to pack the tackle box in order to avoid being gutted up the middle, then started working their edges. A Jet sweep by Gunner Olszewski. A drag route connection to Jakob Johnson. A backside quick slant to Harry to make it a manageable 3rd down after a 1st & 20. Then those two plays above. If Steve Belichick's unit could've produced a 3- or even the occasional 6 & out, it might have been good enough. We'll never know.
--Nor will we ever know the logic behind this not being a penalty:
Take your pick. It's a kids raffle in school where every ticket wins. You want unnecessary roughness? There it is. Unsportsmanlike, you got it. How about a Horse Collar tackle? Yup. Belichick was furiously, and correctly, saying they were officiating the intent, which they're not supposed to do. What was in Jerry Hughes' heart is between him and his God. What was in his hands was Mac Jones shoulder pads four steps out of bounds. So flag him. But to me it's worse than officiating intent is having different rules for different players. Jones is a rookie, which didn't used to mean anything, but in today's NFL means you don't get the calls the established stars get. The NBAification of pro football continues, unabated.
--A Jacksonville game couldn't be more welcome right now. If they can't win this one - easily and in blowout fashion with Brian Hoyer taking practice reps in the final minutes - then I've been living a lie.
--Everything is riding on this next game. Even my Christmas display depends on it:
No pressure, though.
--Finally, in that way that a local newscast about natural disasters and crimewaves and tragedy feels the need to end with a heartwarming human interest story, there's this. Someone either thought this would work or has a serious grudge against this woman, because they sent her to her doom:
My advice to the next real news reporter who's put in harm's way like this: Fake a heart attack.