Knee Jerk Reactions, Week 13: Patriots vs. Rams
Things to consider while waiting for Tom Brady’s congratulations from Peyton Manning. Which should come in the form of a letter which the thumb-headed goober will then use to sell high-fructose sports drinks:
*There’s a loud minority of the New England sports landscape that lives to tell you that if you’re enjoying something, you better knock it off. That everything you like is bad. And today they will tell you not to read too much into a win over the Rams. So here’s your pal Old Balls to tell you not to read nothing into it. The Rams are a four win team. Blow outs don’t happen very often in this league. The Patriots defense surrendered fewer total yards in the first half than their offense had plays.
*Not to mention, this is coming after a week in which we were so traumatized by the loss of Rob Gronkowski that a college could offer us coloring books and hugs from the comfort pug. So I’m letting you know right now it’s okay to feel good about this one. Don’t let the hardos tell you otherwise.
*And this is one of those games where the style points do matter. I’ve been as loud and hysterical an alarmist about their defense as anyone. I’ve had it with their Memory Foam-soft coverages and ineffective pass rush and just last week said they’re incapable of making any quarterback look bad. And yesterday they did just that. I’m not pretending Jared Goff is 1994 Steve Young. I’m saying I like the way they went about it this week. For the first time in what seems like forever, the Patriots defense went on the attack.
*I feel like the last time the Pats were this aggressive, I was Knee Jerk Reacting to it on MySpace. They sent extra rushers after Goff, jumped routes and repeatedly dished out punishing hits. The kind of hits that in a less civilized time, they used to compile onto VHS and give it free with your paid subscription to Sports Illustrated, but now we only get to see at Black Friday sales. And it was glorious.
*Best of all, the aggressiveness didn’t come at the price of stupidity. These weren’t 0-blitzes where you send everybody and hang your corners out to dry. Dick LeBeau’s whole mantra of the Zone Blitz was to generate “safe pressure,” which is what the Pats were doing. They typically rushed five, using a NASCAR front of Kyle Van Noy, Rob Ninkovich, Trey Flowers, Dont’a Hightower and Chris Long, most times with Van Noy spying the running back from the Will linebacker spot. But they were able to come in ways that made Goff look as baffled as he did in “Hard Knocks” when they asked him where the sun rises and sets. (True story. Nice education, Cal.)
*We saw some good examples of a Bill Belichick coaching point, “Blitz the Formation,” or “BTF.” The concept being you wait for the offense to get set, check to a call specific to that alignment, then at the snap players can call out to switch assignments. Early on, with the Rams pinned deep and facing a third-and-11, Ninkovich and Flowers ran a twist that chased Goff from the pocket and forced a punt. Later Ninko stunted behind Flowers on a third-and-8 to hurry Goff into a checkdown that netted them nothing. Once he started feeling it, Matt Patricia really let them off the chain, calling for corner blitzes with Logan Ryan, like the one where Hightower and Van Noy both shot the A-gaps while Jabaal Sheard covered the tight end and Ryan came free for the sack.
*I’ve always felt like defensive line play is very much about momentum. And eventually the Pats Front 7 got it to the point the sacks just started coming off winning 1-on-1 battles. Ninkovich gets an initial punch in to disengage from Rob Haverstein. Chris Long with a textbook spin move to get inside Greg Robinson. McClellin shooting a gap late in the game. I think that starts with an attitude. An attack mode where you’ve set your phasers to “Kill” and it takes over the whole unit. I mean, just go back to that first down of the second half. Long was in a 3-point stance, his leg twitching, like a greyhound at the start, Van Noy was leaning into the neutral zone, each of them ready to pounce like a redneck’s pit bull on a toddler. And it led to a presnap penalty by the offense, exactly the kind of error the Patriots haven’t been forcing offenses into making.
*The change in the defense was so dramatic, I’m going to start the rumor that the Matt Patricia look-alike in the stands was a Belichick plant. Put there to send the real Patricia the message that if he doesn’t start changing his approach, he’ll be replaced with a doppleganger and no one will ever know.
*Credit to two guys who really stepped up: Alan Branch, who ate up space against the run, and Sheard, who kepts making plays on the ball dropping into the underneath zones. Given the fact that both of them have both been sent to Belichick’s Time Out chair this year and Branch was just unfairly charged with Possession of Class D by the league, it’s great to see them step up.
*It’s particularly gratifying to see the defense punish receivers for a change. We got hard hits that jarred the ball loose from Devin McCourty, Malcolm Butler, Duron Harmon, just to name a few. The romantic in me likes to think it was from having the 2001 champions in the house. You can’t be out there playing flag football when you’ve got old school badasses like Ty Law and Lawyer Milloy looking on. It had to feel like the football equivalent of being active duty military and meeting the guys who took Mt. Sirubachi. You’ll do anything to live up to what they did.
*Watching Jeff Fisher struggle to find his challenge flag is the most Jeff Fisher moment of all time. And is proof positive the Rams will suck for a long time. I just think that if you’re going to hand a contract extension to the losingest coach in NFL history, especially a guy who looks like he should be driving a tricked-out, cherry, 1980s Ford Econoline van with a bed in the back and a bubble window, you might want to make sure he knows what’s in his pockets.
*Sneaky the best players on the Patriots’ offense were the guards. Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason threw an invisibilty cloak over Aaron Donald, who’s being promoted as the Next Big Thing in pro football. And with good reason. The kid is great. But playing mostly against Mason, he had zero impact. Even the one time he did something, it wasn’t even him. Someone (I think it was Eugene Sims) penetrated to disrupt a run, Donald was in on the tackle and John Lynch was contractually obligated to describe it like it was a superstar making a superstar play. But in reality, the guy who’s been talked about as DPOTY did nothing, thanks to Thuney and Mason.
*And Marcus Cannon showed why he, unlike Fisher, deserves his pay raise. On the first touchdown, he bounced up to the second level to seal TJ McDonald coming on the backside to chase down LeGarrette Blount (the key block was Martellus Bennett, L-stepping to get outside of Mark Barron on the edge) as he cut outside. On all those wide receiver screens, it was typically Cannon selling the run block, then bouncing outside to seal off a linebacker or safety. On one screen in the 4th, the Pats ran a misdirection, then threw it backside to Julian Edelman. They never showed who Cannon blocked, but he ran somebody into a bin at one of the U-Store It places up Route 1. If you weren’t convinced about Cannon before, you should be after this game.
*With the O-line, we’ve gotten exactly what we wanted all along. Five guys who play every snap. No rotation. No uncertainty. They know their reads and each other’s moves. And while it’s not perfect, it’s why Dante Scarnecchia was brought out of retirement. I don’t know what it is about the man exactly. Some people talk about him like he’s got the management style of Negan on “Walking Dead,” speak profanely and carry a big stick wrapped in barbed wire. But my guess is he’s more like the sergeant in every war movie. Think Tom Sizemore in “Saving Private Ryan” or Sam Elliot in “We Were Soldiers.” That undefinable blend of confidence mixed with competence you can’t define, but men just want to follow. Whatever it is, I’m glad he’s back in the trenches instead of singing the Nationwide jingle in a diner like some retirees.
*It’s going to be a struggle to get into the end zone in the No Gronk Apocalypse. I’m not going to lie to you. But they’re figuring it out. That opening drive was so conservative it would have locked up the Evangelical vote in the Republican primaries. All power runs, screens and checkdowns. But evenutally things opened up.
*The rest of the way it was all either Blount running behind James Develin or 10-personnel (1-back) with 2X2 receiver sets. So while we weren’t seeing the 3-man route combos, they emptied the bag of 2-mans. My favorite being the Hoss (a Hitch combined with a Seam) they ran on third-and-11 where Malcolm Mitchell went deep and Danny Amendola sat under the safeties for 17. It didn’t lead to a score, but that’s the kind of thing they can do to stretch zones in a post-Gronk world.
*But if you’re giving a non-Brady game ball, it goes to Edelman. First of all, he took the kind of vicious hit that makes you want to curl up in your bathtub fully clothed, and the mics caught him yellling “I love dat shit!!!” Later, with Brady running for his life in a collapsing pocket, he runs a deep cross, signals for the ball, then beats a 6’1” Maurce Alexander for the catch. He’s “Single White Female”-ing Brady as it is, having a baby with a hot chick while dating a Brazilian supermodel, so you know this day was extra special for him.
*And he followed up the catch against Alexander with a 15 yard dig route. It’s the kind play where he’s so excited, I’m surprised he could even hand the ball to the official. He looks more like he wants to put in his mouth, run back to the huddle and have Brady scratch him behind the ear and say what a good boy he is.
*This week’s Applicable Movie Quote: “This was given to me by the Captain of the Links at St. Andrews! You know, they invented the game there. Except they call it Goff, without the ‘L.’” – Judge Smails, “Caddyshack”
*Regarding that Amazon ad every mom is posting to their Facebook, the one where the two men of God buy each other knee pads so they can pray? Yes, it’s a very touching message. But as a mediocre Catholic, I’m just mostly glad we finally live in a world where someone we can talk about a priest wearing knee pads where it doesn’t get ugly.
*Belichick stroked Johnny Hekker all week like he was the last chopper pilot out of Saigon. And it was justified. But when your best weapon (Belichick’s word) is your punter, it’s like having Brock Holt represent you at the 2015 All Star Game. It’s the kind of thing that gets GMs fired, not coaches new contracts.
*Speaking of Special Teams, I was legit worried how the Pats would handle not having Matthew Slater active. He’s the best teamer they’ve ever had, which I don’t say lightly with guys like Troy Brown and Larry Izzo in the area. But Brandon Bolden for one positively Next Man Upped.
*I would just prefer that at this point, we consider Cyrus Jones damaged goods and pull him off the shelf for the rest of the season. But never trust him back there on the return unit until he goes to Punt Fielding Camp for the summer.
*I hope that whatever important business Roger Goodell was attending to yesterday, it was worth skipping out on his league’s most successful franchise honoring its signature season that resulted in one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport AND the face of the league quarterback breaking the all time wins record. Just kidding. I hope he was sitting in a dark room by himself, engaged in quiet self-discovery why he is such a dick.