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Knee Jerk Reactions from Week 2: Patriots vs. Dolphins

Things to consider while waiting for the 1,000-year-old mummified alien to announce it's running as a third party candidate:

--There's no escaping the fact the Patriots are now 0-1 in games in which they count on Cole Strange's ability to pick up a 1st down. That's a truth we all have to face.

--I expected a slow start. That's happened in some of the most successful season this team has ever had. I can accept that, with the disarray along the offensive line all summer, the injuries, the roster turnover, and the reliance on rookies in all three phases, that there'd be a bit of a shakedown cruise element to 2023 where things would start off shaky until all hands on deck get comfortable with this vessel. And things may, and I suspect will, improve as we move forward. But what is harder to accept though, is that as it currently stands, this team is just ... well, just just. They simple are. There's not a single notable thing about this edition of the New England Patriots. They're neither fish nor fowl. Neither Jew nor Greek. They're the NFL's ultimate middle child. The C student who doesn't play any sports, isn't a Band Kid, doesn't belong to any clubs, and by the fifth year reunion you're checking his "Hello, My Name Is" sticker in case he says, "Remember me from Algebra?" or something. They're that co-worker you realize you've never spoken to but someone is asking you to sign a Good Luck card for him because he's leaving. The current Patriots are that song you think you've heard before but the band who does it and the year it came out completely escape you. If they were a meal, they'd be that time you went to Olive Garden and remember the salad and breadsticks, but just know you ordered the pasta prima-something. If they were a TV show, they'd be that one season of that one ... what's it called? It had Nicole Kidman and some other rich ladies where they think one of them might have killed her husband? I forget who ended up doing it. But anyway, we might have to watch that one again. And for this franchise, being that team is the unpardonable sin. 

--Both Matthews, Judon and Slater, said afterwards that no matter how bad 0-2 looks, they're not a bad team. And I agree. Like I said after the game, the Patriots are finding ways to be just not quite good enough. To not convert on the majority of those dozen or so 50/50 plays that decide virtually every game. To lose every critical replay challenge. To come up inches short on the have-to-have-it plays. To not be able to close out a come-from-behind drive. To never pull an upset, despite the reality now that they're commonly underdogs at home. Seriously, when was the last time they won a game you weren't expecting? The only one I can recall without looking it up is that one against Buffalo that was played in the wind tunnel at a jet engine factory. They play well enough for moral victories against the elite teams, but not actual victories. And to beat the teams in the NFL's vast middle class, they need to have everything break their way. They're a hothouse flower that blooms in perfect conditions, but is incapable of winning a game they have no business winning. Which is the most un-Patriots thing you could say about them in the 21st century. 

--To put it differently, the sad reality is that there's nothing about this team that should strike fear in the heart of any opponent. Meanwhile defensively, they had to deploy every weapon in their arsenal just to slow Miami down. They treated Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle like wild stallions that not even Rip Wheeler could break; only hope to keep them in the corral awhile. 

--The Belichicks played a variety pack of coverages. Mostly zone. (Pattern match, where the inside and shallow guys are given an area, cover it like man, and pass receivers off to one another according to certain parameters. It's a whole thing I don't fully grasp. But a real scene, man.) A lot of 3-deep safety umbrellas, with Kyle Dugger, Jabrill Peppers, Christian Gonzalez and Ju'Whuan Bentley playing every, single snap. Basically keeping the Death Star ray-shielded from the transmitter on the planet surface. Some variations on their standard Cover-1 scheme. Like "Top," where the strong safety drops back into the deep post at the snap as the free safety rolls over the top of the WR1 for a high/low double. Or "Triangle," where the free safety takes centerfield while the strong, corner, and robber/star safety form a 3-over-2 look over a pair of stacked receivers. Then there was this one, where it looked like Gonzalez was deep in a Cover-2 alongside Dugger, with Peppers bumping Hill off the line:

--But there's no celebrating Gonzalez' first career, game-changing interception without harshing everyone's mellow by pointing out it changed next to nothing. Because while that sort of mistakein a high-leverage situation would've been fatal for an opponent a few years ago, against these Pats, they barely feel it. 

Giphy Images.

What should've been a huge momentum shift didn't even register. The subsequent drive was a 3 & out that lost 10 yards, thanks to Andrew Van Ginkel getting his pads low underneath the non-block of our starting right tackle Calvin Anderson. And in the process, stealing a sack from Bradley Chubb, who split two non-blocks from our starting left tackle Vederian Lowe, and our big running back acquisition Ezekiel Elliot. Which spared Mac Jones from getting drilled by Christian Wilkins who stunted around to beat a non-block by Strange:

So where they should've been stomping on Miami's neck at that point, the Pats offense banged its shin off the sharp part of the metal bed frame in the middle of the night instead. 

--Pivoting back to the defensive side of the ball for a bit, in choosing to play that deep coverage, the Belichicks invited the Dolphins to do what they wanted underneath. And Mike McDaniel took full advantage. Toss plays. Outside zone runs. Flats, curls, sit routes. That jet sweep hand off thingy that counts as a pass for whatever reason. By my very questionable math, when you play three safeties deep, that leaves you eight guys to account for all the space underneath. So McDaniel attacked them on the edges and had the patience to keep taking what was being made available. In this game of mental Pickleball between him and Belichick, he kept returning the serve instead of trying to make the perfect volley, and waited for his opponent to put it into the net.

--If this was a True Crime podcast, this would be the time where we unveil the ironic twist. And this is no exception. For all the talk of McDaniel's cunning brilliance and the fact his victim had a bubbly personality and a smile that would light up a room, the death blow was a simple one. The killing stroke was just an inside power run. With the Pats in a 3-4 look, with Sam Roberts shading to the weak side, the Dolphins ran a simple counter. Alec Ingold came in motion to take out Jahlani Tavai off the weakside end, Durham Smythe got just enough of a hat on Keion While filling the hole, Robert Hunt sealed off Roberts on a double team before bouncing to the next level to get a hat on Bentley, everyone else was a running in mud, and Raheem Mostert was the murder weapon. Going right into the heart of the end zone untouched:

--And yet, when you lose the turnover battle again and hold an offense like Miami to 24 points, you're doing something right defensively. Matthew Judon brought his A-game once again. Deatrich Wise Jr. got his hands up in the passing lane with a perfectly timed jump, forcing Tua Tagovailoa to bring the ball back down, which gave Judon time to break out his Drunk Uncle on the Wedding Dance Floor spin move on Austin Jackson and force a punt:

--Tavai also deserves to get singled out for praise here. A guy who felt like an afterthought when they added him to the depth chart three years ago has made himself into an essential part of the linebacker/box safety mix. He's now filling that Kyle Van Noy role, toggling from off-the-ball Sam to up-on-the-line Will. From there is where he slipped two blocks to blow up a 2nd & goal and hold Miami to a field goal on their first possession:

--I don't want to seem like I'm trying to slap a "We're Proud of Our Insufficient Defense" sticker on the rear bumper here. It's just that when you rely on three cornerbacks named Jones, two of them don't play, including the one who has basically immunized us against the Tyreek Variant over the years, the one who does play goes out after just 20 snaps, and you don't get blown out of the stadium against this Dolphins offense, there's some reason for hope. 

--Flipping back to the other side of the ball, people will undoubtedly take issue with the fact Demario Douglas was put in the Time Out chair after his fumble. Including, to some extent, Demario Douglas. Though he does understand why:

But anyone who complains about the decision is missing the larger point. This isn't some New Testament Belichick, all about forgiveness, atonement, and redemption. We have Old Testament Belichick, who's all about punishment for sins, retribution, and vengeance. He created this imperfect universe we all get to live in, and this is the law he's been handing down since he wrote "I resign as hc of nyjs" in Genesis. The next time Douglas is trying to pick up extra YAC, he'll be thinking about the time he got benched on prime time network TV, and wrap the ball up. "And it is good."

--With or without Douglas, this is still a wide receiver depth chart that needs to be schemed up in order to get open. They're simply not going to defeat man coverage much, if at all. DeVante Parker had one of his best games as a Patriot. And winning the jump balls on back shoulder/fade routes are how he earns a living. But at no point was he going to be open as Xavien Howard posted him up on the sideline like this. He may be in Mac Jones' Circle of Trust, but there was no reason to trust him with this throw:

--I don't know if I can call that Jones' only mistake. But if he made others, I can't recall them. Certainly not with my current lack of sleep. If anything, he's throwing on the run better than we've ever seen him. Extending plays with Keepers and even some (I think) designed Bootlegs and Waggles to take the pass rush bat out of Miami's hands:

--In fact, he was so mobile the Analytics Cops clocked him going over his own personal speed limit:

Which set up the first touchdown to Hunter Henry, off an RPO, where again Jones was forced to improvise to buy time and give Henry the chance to get free of a jam:

--And again, when he hit Juju Smith-Schuster to set up Rhamondre Stevenson's touchdown:

Bill O'Brien's thing is that when you're making progression reads, the strong side is vertical and the weak is horizontal. Here Jones had a 3X1, with Smitj-Schuster as the Strong-1 in a tight bunch outside the two tight ends. Mike Gesicki ran what looked like a Middle Read inside a deep Dagger by Henry. And Jones stayed alive just long enough to motion Juju back to the ball from the corner route he'd ran. And delivered the kind of throw across his body from deep in the shortstop hole I didn't used to think he had in him. But which is getting more common. Partly out of self-preservation. 

--Speaking of which, Michael Onwenu had to be playing hurt before he got subbed out for Antonio Mafi. I can't imagine him being that ineffective otherwise. I refuse to believe it. 

--From an aesthetic viewpoint, these throwback unis are the best in the league. From an emotional perspective, they bring back a lot of PTSD from my Patriots childhood. You see Mac Jones wearing the crap out of a gorgeous red No. 10 jersey. Part of my primitive reptilian brain sees Tom Flick. No bueno.

--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote: "These things are hard on your heart." - Oppenheimer

--As I desperately flail around trying to find positives among the wreckage, special teams continues to be a source of joy. Brendan Schooler's blocked kick was nothing short of inspired genius by whichever member of the coaching staff came up with it:

Which is why, by the time you're reading this, I'm sure it will have been banned by a special midnight emergency meeting of the Rules Committee. Because if there's anything we can be sure of right now, it's that we can't have nice things. 

--Except we do have the Jets coming next. That's nice. They're always the cure for whatever's ailing us. Right? They better be.