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Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 5: Patriots vs. Lions

Things to consider while realizing that, while he created the original Pat Patriot logo in a Worcester newspaper in 1960, Phil Bissell is somehow 10 years younger than I am:

--Rare is the time the Patriots pitch a shutout and I don't lead off by talking about the defense. Even rarer is when they do it against the league's highest scoring offense who's been putting up 35 points per game. But when they're down to their third string rookie quarterback and he leads them to a blowout win, that's the headline every, single time. 

--And like seemingly every other game so far this year, this one has an almost perfect analogue in a game from the past: Week 3 of 2016. In that one, a rookie quarterback had been pressed into his first duty the week before when the QB2 couldn't finish the game. In his first start, he was able to carry out a game plan that played to his strength, and with good complimentary football between him, the running game and the defense, roll to a blowout win. It's not a direct analogy, as rookie Jacoby Brissett only completed 11 passes for 103 yards, while running for a 27-yard touchdown in a 27-0 win over the Texans. Whereas Bailey Zappe completed 17 for 188 and a passing TD. But Brissett had LeGarrette Blount in the Rhamondre Stevenson roll. The O-line neutralized JJ Watt the way this one did Aidan Hutchinson. And defensively Jamie Collins made game-changing plays in the 2016 equivalent of 2022 Matthew Judon. The parallels are uncanny, really. Time is a flat circle. Everything we do, we have done before. And will do again.

--What more can we ask of Zappe? Specifically, what more can we ask before all the parody songs start filling Morning Zoo shows and YouTube fan channels. Pharrell Williams' "Zappe." "Don't Worry, Be Zappe." "C'mon, Get Zappe." "You Make Me So Very Zappe." It's about to get insufferable around here. Gird your loins.

--Zappe's stats are impressive enough: 17-for-21, 80.9%, 188 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, a tidy 100.0 passer rating. (Which would've been much better if Nelson Agholor could hold onto a ball, but we'll get to him.) But close the math books. What do your elf eyes see, Legolas? Mine see a guy who's adjusting to NFL football like it's not all that different from when he was facing Middle Tennessee in Conference USA. Of course it's faster and the athletes are tremendously better. But not so much that he can't process it, before and after the snap. He's getting his protection schemes called correctly. Killing plays at the line as necessary. When he's given time, he runs through his progressions. When the pocket gets dirty, he's able to escape and complete passes out of structure. And he's taking shots upfield when the situation presents itself. 

--A couple of real veteran touches stood out to me. One when he was scrambling, escaped Hutchinson and tucked and ran the ball. Even while going out of bounds, he had the wherewithal to pump fake over the pursuing linebacker to give himself an extra yard along the sideline. I'll concede that doesn't take a genius. As Joe Theismann once put it, a genius is someone like Norman Einstein. But what it speaks to is a certain comfort level. A degree of control. That the pro game is not to big for him. A similar moment came in the first drive after the half, where again he scrambled away from Hutchinson, stepped up in the pocket with no one in front of him for a good five yards. But instead of taking the easy gain, he kept scanning the field for better options. And the Terminator-like heads-up display in his cyborg eye calculated Hunter Henry as the best chance of success, and he hit him in the flat for a 1st down. 

--Then of course, there was this gem:

Holy cats, the NFL's pun game is no better than the "Zappe to Be Stuck With You" that is surely coming. Anyway, his line was in their 5-step drop "70" protection package. Out of the gun, Zappe first identified No. 34 Alex Anzalone as the Mike, so rolling the blocking in his direction, "72" if he's to the left, "73" if he's to the right. In 72 or 73, there's no help from the running back or tight end. In this case, Stevenson ran an Over the Ball sit route as Zappe's dump off option. Hunter Henry and Jakobi Meyers ran deep routes against a Cover-2, and Zappe waited until the safety on their side committed to Henry up the seam before hitting Meyers in the bullseye. Like he's been doing it for years. 

--While there are a lot of great individual efforts to get into. And we shall, so pour a glass of whatever you're drinking on whatever you're calling this holiday and hang with me. But first, please put your hands together and join me in a big, rousing, round of applause for your defensive and offensive coordinators! [Crickets.] Um, let's hear it for Linebackers Coach Steve Belichick and Senior Football Advisor in Charge of Maybe Calling the Plays But Not Having a Title So He Doesn't Have to Give Interviews and Can Still Get Paid by the Lions, Matt Patricia! [Thunderous applause.]

--These were outstanding game plans on both sides of the ball. Beginning with the way Belichick the Younger was able to scramble the jets in a way to take TJ Hockenson out of the game entirely, one week after he buried Seattle in a pyroclastic cloud of Fantasy points. I'll be curious to see what the breakdowns from the analytics sites say about who was in coverage on him the most. But to me it looked like primarily Kyle Dugger, occasionally spelled by Jabrill Peppers. After the game, Bill Belichick credited a lot of names, including linebackers Jahlani Tavai and Ju'Whaun Bentley, who got in Hockenson's passing lanes to reroute him. Whatever work group was responsible, they deserve a Casual Friday WITH pizza party.

--Beyond that, Steve Belichick had his secondary rotating coverages and blitzes to keep Jared Goff even more baffled than he was by Brian Flores in Super Bowl LIII. Early in the 2nd quarter, Peppers and Jonathan Jones flipped coverages at the snap, with Jones becoming the replacement blitzer as Peppers took on the running back, as Goff instead looked to an out route that Dugger had covered, for the incompletion that had no chance. Then there was the 4th down where Jonathan Vilma highlighted Jonathan Jones showing that he was going to follow the slot receiver up the seam, but at the snap took the running back on a flare route in the flat and made the stop. Beyond that, web saw a lot of different corner blitzes, often from Adrian Phillips off the edge. As well as Phillips slanting into the backfield on a bobbled exchange between Goff and Craig Reynolds for a big loss.

--Then there was the individual effort of Judon, who put a pretty good set of bookend tackles into a blender all game. Neither Taylor Decker (LT) or Penei Sewell (RT) had an answer for his quick twitch outside rush all game. One after JoJones and Peppers Rubik's Cubed their blitz/coverage, Judon got under Decker's pads to bring Goff down. Then he tortured Sewell with this pure speed rush:

Now Judon has six sacks through five games, and twice as many QB Hits. The good news is that once again he's the best player on this defense. The better news is that he's got competition. 

--Jack Jones continues to impress with his veteran ability to seek and destroy passes. Some guys just always seem to be around the ball. And in his case, I don't get the feeling it's some innate instinct or whatever. And thankfully it's not just because QBs are targeting him. I think he just has the skills to play off coverage, stay with his man while keeping his eyes in the backfield, then change direction and break on the ball. Case in point, his interception:

That flag route has been a killer for this team for as long as I can remember. It feels like at least every other week, someone has hauled in a pass at the boundary inside the 5 over some overmatched linebacker with no help. Now Jones comes along with the speed and eye for the football to streak to the corner and stop it. Right now he looks like the absolute todo tiene pinta de robo de draft. 

--Not to pick nits when they kept Detroit off the scoreboard, but there were some chunk plays and times the front was gashed up the middle. Playing what has become their base 3-3-5, with a single middle linebacker (Bentley, Tavai, Mack Wilson and sometimes Raekwon McMillan) and either Tavai, Josh Uche or Anfernee Jennings up on the line opposite Judon, they occasionally get overpowered by double teams on their tackles and backs hitting the hole find huge tracts of land:

Giphy Images.

… at the second level. Some of that will be alleviated when Lawrence Guy comes back, because he's as good at occupying two blockers as anyone on this roster. But the linebacking simply has to improve. And I'm not sure adding Jamie Collins is all it's going to take. 

--Still, this defense went 6-for-6 on 4th downs. And you get the sense that if Dan Campbell felt the need to earn his Hardo Card even more, they would've kept forcing turnovers on downs until the Lions got on the plane back to Michigan. I mean, I get he's trying to project that sort of Jesse "The Body" Ventura persona, where he's got a face like a clenched fist and was chiseled out of twisted steel and sex appeal and fears no one. But by the time Christian Barmore blew up a run two yards into the backfield with a perfect rip move on Jonah Jackson, you've got to learn to put your ego aside and quit acting like you've got a grudge against your punter. 

--I've gone on about the defense a lot, and need to get back to the other side of the ball before it gets dark. In the postgame, Zappe said his offensive line was the MVP, and he's not wrong. Of course, Isaiah Wynn got his obligatory penalty out of the way early. And my buddy Bob's (keep getting well, brother) Paul wants me to call him "Isaiah Spin." But not today. Because he was a beast in the run game. Not the least of which was one of Stevenson's huge runs:

Wynn was uncovered, so he ran a Pin-Pull with Cole Strange and David Andrews. Wynn blocked down on Michael Onwenu's man, while he took the nose and the backside guard and center pull to pave the road for Stevenson. Here it is from a better angle. Note how Strange drills No. 44 Malcolm Rodriguez into the ground:

--Also, while Wynn saw some action against Hutchinson, Trent Brown couldn't have made him harder to find if he'd put the rookie in  a Field Turf ghillie suit. 

--It's incredible that once Damien Harris left with a hammie, Stevenson was the only running back in the game. And the way he's firmly established himself as a pass-catcher as well, I literally cannot think of another RB in this team's history that could've handled the load the way he did. The head coach obviously feels the same way, judging by this Hallmark Original Movie moment:

Whoosh. I'm getting a little flushed. I'll need a moment to compose myself. Take your time getting back, Damien.

--I'm sorry it took this long to get to this. But it's time to stop saying Jakobi Meyers is overachieving, or he's miscast as the No. 1 receiver or any of that nonsense. He's now on the fourth quarterback of his career who sees him as his favorite target. He's taken his place among the great slot receivers of this Dynasty. A proud line that goes from Julian Edelman and stretches all the way back to Troy Brown.

--One play it's a shallow crosser behind the linebackers. Next, he's getting off the line and shaking his defender with "stretch release" footwork, showing he's going one way and breaking the other. Then it's a staple of the Erhardt-Perkins system (which they are clearly running now). Zappe motions in Henry, who chips the end in order to sell the run before releasing. Zappe runs the play action to Stevenson who picks up a blitzer. The two outside receivers on the back side run slants ("Tosser" in this playbook), while Meyers runs the crosser from the strong side for 18 yards. He's exactly what this offense needs, and nothing less.

--Whereas Nelson Agholor needs to quit being a liability. Even if he's not an asset. Like the Hippocratic Oath says, "First, do no harm." And maybe consider holding your hands up and slapping down at the football. That way when you don't catch it, at least you're not DoorDashing it to the front porch of the defense. 

--I don't know who gets the credit for finally working Hunter Henry into the passing offense. But whether it's Zappe, Patricia, or some mystery coordinator acting in the shadows, using Patricia as a front, thank you. He had never had such an unproductive four-game stretch in his entire career. Even operation exclusively out of 11-personnel and playing all but one down, he was fully active in all three levels of the Lions secondary, right from the opening possession. 

Now let's start finding him in the red zone like last year.

--One obvious tell about this offense is that if Lil'Jordan Humphrey is in, that's a run play. Now we wait for Patricia to start countering teams who scout for that with some Lil'Deep Passes off Lil'Play Action.

--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote: "The lions in their dens tremble at his approach." - Moroccan Minister, Patton

--That was my first game with Vilma on the broadcast. And I have to say, I'm a fan. He gives you great insight, has a good way of explaining things in real time and is genuinely likeable. But he's never going to make it to the network's A-Squad if he keeps praising Mr. Kraft for improving his stadium without taxpayer money. Those NFL owners love of free market capitalism only goes so far as them getting their hands on public money. Then their new 4K, hi-res megascreens are as vital a piece of infrastructure as any bridge or tunnel. And a benefit to the entire community.

--Another word about these throwback uniforms. I don't know anyone who wouldn't argue the Pat Patriot helmet and the red jerseys are a better aesthetic than the variations they've been wearing since 1993. (Although red jerseys when the people you're named after were fighting the revolution against were called Redcoats is admittedly a weird choice. The equivalent of the Jedi Council softball team wearing black jerseys naming themselves the Sith Lords.) But in high school I took an English class called Semantics. And one of the things we talked about was how words and symbols take on the meaning of whatever they represent. So if something has unpleasant connotations, we have to change how we refer to it every few years. "Toilet" gets the euphemism "Rest Room." "Janitor" becomes "custodian." "Gypsy" changes to "Roma." Even though those are just different consonants and vowel combinations that refer to the same thing. (Let's add, "Columbus Day" becomes "Indigenous People's Day," because we like moral principles and all, just not enough to give up a holiday.) Same with symbols. Which is how an ancient Sanskrit religious icon that meant "conducive to well-being" could be co-opted by a 20th century rabble of goose-stepping fanatics to become shorthand for their genocidal shitheadedness. (Against people like the Roma.) Pat Patriot came to symbolize the franchise's general not-good-enoughism. Amateurishness. Bankruptcy, both financial and moral. A constant threat to move to another city. The worst stadium in sports half empty, and so on. So it was best to change to the admittedly inferior Flying Elvis, which came to be a symbol of success and even dominance. After all, the Packers have kept an oval "G" for 100 years because they won with it, early and often. They'd have ditched it generations ago if they were the Chicago Cardinals. Which is why I'm all for keeping it as an occasional throwback alternative, to honor the past. But to forever keep the current unis, to remind the world that this is a Dynasty.