FOXBORO – The Patriots’ defense is real. For three weeks of the season, he has ranked as one of the best in football in a number of statistical categories. Traditional statistics. Advanced statistics. They all agreed that Bill Belichick’s band was very good.
But it was hard to separate those numbers from the competition Belichick and the Patriots had faced: Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins, Zach Wilson and the Jets, Jameis Winston and the Saints. Not exactly a Murderers’ Row quarterback.
Then came Tom Brady. And the Patriots hatched a plan to stop him and his explosive attack, even without their top corner Stephon Gilmore. They didn’t follow the old ‘dare it pass’ plan which made sense since it had been used against Peyton Manning and others. Instead, Belichick asked his defense to do what they do: play man to man.
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JC Jackson got Mike Evans. Jalen Mills got Chris Godwin. Jonathan Jones got Antonio Brown. They went from there. Not on every snap. Belichick mixed and matched his blankets. But he challenged his corners to create tight windows in individual situations, and he challenged Brady to attack tight windows.
Of course, winning one-on-one wasn’t the only way Belichick had closed Brady’s throwing lanes. The Patriots used a lot of the three- and four-man rush, releasing defensemen into cover to flood the field with color as Brady watched him. Outside linebackers “plugged” slot receivers – scrambling them on the line – to help disrupt the timing and give the Patriots corners a better chance to choke the roads.
There were occasional blitzes. Emphasize “occasional”. The Patriots brought the heat on just eight of Brady’s 45 drops. But there were plenty of disguises on the line of scrimmage to play around with Brady and his linemen as they deciphered who was rushing and who wasn’t.
After a week of wondering what the Patriots would do – after wondering if they have the talent to compete with Tampa Bay, after wondering if Belichick would even try to confuse Brady – we got answers. And they worked.
It wasn’t until an injury to Jonathan Jones opened up a third chance for Brady to hit Brown that the Bucs took the lead for good. Justin Bethel took the field for a snap instead of Jones, teamed up with Brown, and Brady found him.
But the plan was solid and the Patriots executed it. That’s why the defensive ratings are where they are after a loss on Sunday night. We will come back to this soon. But first … the offense.
Considering the circumstances, what Mac Jones was able to do against the Bucs deserves high marks.
National television. “BRA, BRA,” he sings. He has completed 19 consecutive assists at one time. It sailed well in the pocket when it was bombed, for the most part. And he was often blitzed, as has been the case for the past four weeks.
The Bucs blitzed, as usual, over more than 50% of Jones’ losses. According to Pro Football Focus, Jones went 18 for 22 for 173 yards (7.9 yards per attempt), a touchdown and a pick in a blitz. And he had the team in a position to win on a long field goal at the end. But he seemed to hit short at times when he had time to try shots on the field – his only throw from 20 yards or more was picked – and he almost threw a grueling second pick into the red zone that would be ‘J’ deleted points from the table.
This prevents that mark from getting much higher. Like not being able to take full advantage of a secondary decimated by injuries (the Patriots went 2 for 9 on the third down). But in the rain, when he got hit a dozen times, what he did was impressive.
running back: F
Failure notes are generally only reserved for hunt groups whose errors can be directly related to a loss. Sounds fair in this week’s edition of the Bulletin, as JJ Taylor’s fumble at the start of the third quarter stifled a workout that looked like it would result in at least three points.
Brandon Bolden (one hit allowed) and Damien Harris (two rushes allowed) both had pass protection issues. This group had sort of -4 yards on six carries. Unfathomable, even against a strong running defense.
Wide receiver: B +
Anytime a receiver can pay another receiver a dime, it’ll give the score a boost. Jakobi Meyers’ throw to Nelson Agholor, which helped put the Patriots in position for points, was arguably the best vacuum throw of the night for the Belichick club.
Meyers and Kendrick Bourne both benefited from finding themselves covered by newly acquired Bucs corner kicker Richard Sherman. They combined to catch the seven targets sent when they were controlled by Sherman for a total of 91 yards.
Even N’Keal Harry got in on the act, picking up a defensive pass interference penalty on Sherman and connecting with Jones on a loop for a first down. This group had space to operate on Sundays. Jones just didn’t always have time to find them.
Tight end: B
Hunter Henry may have been the most important player under the radar in the New England attack on Sunday. He was a monster on the roads of choice, although that descriptor probably wasn’t that appropriate. Was he a silent assassin? A stealth bomber? You got the idea. He was doing damage without being noticed.
He pitched a well-executed pick for Brandon Bolden for a third-party conversion. He faked a pick and slid towards the goal line on his touchdown. He released Meyers on a stack release “rub” that would have been a critical third-down conversion at the end of the fourth quarter, but the pass was hit at the line of scrimmage.
Offensive line: F
Another dozen hits for Mac Jones. Were they all the result of breakdowns along the offensive line? Nope. But they deserve their share of the blame.
Justin Herron gave four pushes in total. Isaiah Wynn had been at the scene for three years. Mike Onwenu was flagged for two catches and benched in favor of Ted Karras. David Andrews appeared to have some sort of communication breakdown with Jones for the second week in a row when almost the entire offense was skipped for a false start penalty.
When you add the non-existent running game production, you have another failure rating.
Special teams: C
Nick Folk’s failed basket is hard to hold against him. It was 56 meters in the pouring rain. The snap was good. The outfit was good. The kick seemed to have a chance. And he did. It was a few inches from the goal. But there were other aspects of this phase that needed to be adjusted.
The Patriots left an uncontrolled punt that forced returning man Gunner Olszewski closer to the line leading to a punt that could not be returned. Olszewski missed one that was within a pylon’s width to bounce out of bounds at the one-meter line.
There were also good times. Justin Bethel hit a punt around the five. Bethel and Chase Winovich attacked the Tampa Bay kick returner at the 14-yard line to open the second half. But not enough here to inflate the Patriots by a rank or two.
Defensive line: B
The Bucs picked up more than 4.0 yards per carry with their backers on Sunday night, but it’s not a bad night considering how often the Patriots were dedicating numbers to their coverage. With only three and four man races at times, it was up to the bigger bodies up front to fend for themselves when Tom Brady retired. They did, for the most part.
A head-to-head penalty from Davon Godchaux was difficult. And if the defensive line was at the center of things when there was a 12-man flag on the pitch thrown, that’s a black mark for this group. Especially since this one came third. But Christian Barmore presented himself as a passer again with a quarterback hit and a rush. He was at the center of New England’s “amoeba” fronts when Belichick turned things around on Brady with obvious transmissions.
Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise each came up with racing tips, and Wise scored a key pass break on the third down on the line on the third down at the start of the third quarter.
Linebacker: B +
Matthew Judon was not happy last week when it was brought to his attention that there may have been times he appeared to be struggling with a knee injury. He said to let him know if he looked like he was hurt. He wanted to be shown examples.
It is understandable that he is incredulous. He’s been a maniac for the first month of the season. He racked up five more pressures on Sunday night. It’s a one-man wrecking team. He beat a double team for a sack. He imposed a direct penalty that wiped out a Brady bombshell on Brown. He stuffed a Leonard Fournette run for a loss of two. He also lost an advantage that led to a long Fournette run, but otherwise seemed to have a game of their own as part of Belichick’s diverse pass-rush plan.
Kyle Van Noy created the pressure, as did Dont’a Hightower and Chase Winovich. But it was another night in which the “support group was blown away by its latest big-ticket acquisition.”
As it turns out, the Patriots might have had the horses to race with Tampa Bay from the start. Jackson sometimes took his pieces when confronted with Evans. But grant 64 yards on 10 targets? It’s a win for the Patriots.
Jones and Brown also traded blows, with Brown generally taking the upper hand in the game. But even with Brown creating some separation, he still only had 52 yards on nine targets when working on Jones. Mills gave it a long time on a scrambling drill game from Brady when Godwin broke free for 28 yards. But otherwise? He allowed two catches from Godwin for 27 yards. He was beefy on the line and prevented the No. 2 star wide receiver for Tampa from taking over.
Bill Belichick credits his son Steve for his role in Slowing Brady down
Maybe Brady was careful in bad conditions. Maybe he knew the only way to lose to Belichick was to force a pass into an area he didn’t belong to, an unforced error.
But for him to complete just over 50 percent of his throws (22 for 43) for an average of 6.3 yards per attempt and a score of 70.8? Again … It’s a win for the Patriots. Not bad for a group whose best corner remains on the list physically unable to perform.