FOXBORO — the Patriots’ ground game and defense both delivered bounce-back performances in a 36-20 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
After a shaky first quarter, the New England offense, led by 251 rushing yards, scored on six consecutive possessions while the defense produced three fumbles to turn the tide.
Patriots quarterback Cam Newton wasn’t as sharp this week compared to his terrific performance in Seattle, but his offensive line more than made up for an anemic passing game.
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The Pats replaced starter David Andrews by moving left guard Joe Thuney to center with rookie Michael Onwenu at left guard, and the line didn’t miss a beat against a lousy run defense.
We’ll go over the runs that the Patriots broke off in Sunday’s win below, but in summary, Josh McDaniels used wide zone runs from under center against an attacking front to gash Vegas.
New England’s ability offensively to adapt to the game script and opponent is a great sign of things to come. The Pats’ first three games saw three completely different defensive schemes, and they were able to throw when necessary and run when that was the best approach.
Defensively, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick credited the front for putting pressure on Raiders quarterback Derek Carr while the secondary executed its game plan to near-perfection.
Last week, Las Vegas tight end Darren Waller had 12 catches, 105 yards, and a touchdown against the Saints. On Sunday, due to execution and game plan, Waller had two catches for nine yards.
Here are ten things we learned as New England improves to 2-1 on the season:
1. Pats Running Game Explodes For 251 Rushing Yards
Although the passing game was fun to watch in Seattle, the Patriots’ dynamic rushing attack that we’ve seen in their two wins is more sustainable long-term than their passing game.
In the first quarter, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels dialed up their typical power schemes and Newton read-options from shotgun, but the Raiders defense was well-prepared.
McDaniels made a great in-game adjustment to throw out the power runs in favor of wide zone and toss concepts from under-center that used Las Vegas’s aggressiveness against them.
Patriots rookie running back J.J. Taylor got things rolling when McDaniels started calling crack toss plays to the outside. Taylor’s explosiveness to the corner makes him a better fit in those types of schemes than Michel or Burkhead. On the play above, the Pats get a great block from wide receiver N’Keal Harry and center Joe Thuney on the line of scrimmage to get the edge. Then, Taylor makes a decisive upfield cut inside Isaiah Wynn’s pull and runs over 291-pound Maurice Hurst to finish off the run.
Once the Pats established the crack toss, McDaniels began calling lead zone plays with fullback Jakob Johnson in the backfield, and that’s where Sony Michel shined on his nine carries.
Here, right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor seals the inside while fullback Jakob Johnson is trying a kick-out block on the edge. When Trayvon Mullen jumps inside, Michel makes a terrific cut outside to avoid a negative play and then cuts it back across the field patiently behind his blocks. Michel made safety Johnathan Abram pay for a bad angle, and breaks off the explosive run.
Michel, who didn’t force a missed tackle on any of his 17 carries to start the season, was slipping Raiders tacklers at a much better rate in Sunday’s win, including avoiding a loss above on a split-zone scheme where he runs through Abram’s tackle attempt in the backfield.
In the first two weeks of the season, Michel set himself up for explosive runs but failed to show the necessary burst and elusiveness to create yards on his own outside of the blocking.
The 2018 first-round pick made those same reads while setting up his blocks against the Raiders and finally broke free of the defense with much better awareness in the open field.
2. Pats Guard Joe Thuney, Rookie Michael Onwenu Fill in For David Andrews
Replacing offensive captain David Andrews was a tall task, but by taking the “best five” approach, the Pats took advantage of a weak run defense without their starting center.
McDaniels clearly wanted to take advantage of Thuney’s rare athleticism for a center. Above, the Pats block lead zone again, and Thuney puts himself through with nobody over him and immediately gets on Raiders linebacker Raekwon McMillan to spring Michel.
In the first section, the toss play to Taylor also speaks to the ground Thuney can cover at center, which is a unique thing to defend and prepare for defensively. The Pats want Andrews back. Still, Thuney was dominant at center as he would’ve been at left guard on Sunday.
Onwenu continues a strong start to his rookie season by controlling his engagements in the trenches with excellent play strength, and his foot speed is better than advertised.
On a 14-yard Burkhead run to set up a score, Onwenu was uncovered on the line of scrimmage, allowing him to climb immediately to the second level. Onwenu gets up on Raiders linebacker Nicholas Morrow, and Burkhead runs right behind Onwenu for another first-down run.
Although they’ll face steeper competition in the future, it’s a testament to the talent and coaching along the offensive line that the Patriots could be so successful without Andrews in the lineup.
3. Pass Rush Delivers: Chase Winovich and Deatrich Wise’s Big Days
The narratives following last week’s loss to the Seahawks were that Russell Wilson had all day to throw. However, Wilson was actually under pressure on 40 percent of drop-backs.
Instead, it was the timing of the rush that wasn’t there for New England, as Chase Winovich and company hurried and hit Wilson on several occasions but couldn’t force him into negative plays.
This week, the rush delivered those negative plays, with two strip-sacks by Chase Winovich and Deatrich Wise (with help from Shilique Calhoun) that greatly altered the course of the game.
Winovich continues a hot start to the season by registering a strip-sack, and two more quarterback hits on Sunday. On his strip-sack, Wino uses a straight speed rush to beat Raiders right tackle Denzelle Good. Good has trouble getting to his second set point, and the Pats edge rusher makes him pay by blowing by him with the speed rush and some nice dip/bend to turn a tight corner in forcing the fumble.
Later on, Wise joins the party. This time, Winovich’s pressure off the edge forces Carr to step up in the pocket, where Wise has a good bull-rush going to collapse the interior of the pocket. Carr steps right into Wise’s grasp, and eventually, Calhoun piles on too, and the Pats end up with the ball and a touchdown.
Belichick is a master schemer when it comes to applying pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Pats head coach dials up exotic pressure schemes, zero blitzes, stunts, and more.
However, sometimes New England’s front has to get home on its own by beating blockers one-on-one without help from the scheme, and we saw that plenty on Sunday afternoon.
4. Patriots Defense Shuts Down Raiders TE Darren Waller
After a stellar performance last week, you just knew that Belichick would have something cooking in the lab to prevent Waller from killing the Pats defense on Sunday.
Although he was banged up, New England held the talented receiver to only two catches for nine yards by utilizing several different defenders and coverage schemes to slow him down.
The most common coverage on Waller wasn’t fancy, just plain old man-free with Devin McCourty providing inside help as a post or deep safety. The absence of speedster Henry Ruggs allowed McCourty to key on Waller, rather than worry about providing help over the top.
Here, Waller is isolated at the top of the screen with Jonathan Jones as the primary man-coverage defender. Jones is responsible for any quick breaks or outside releases, with McCourty inside providing help on the quick post down by the goal line. With Jones taking outside leverage, Carr thinks he has Waller winning inside on the glance route, but McCourty has his eyes on the Raiders QB and nearly jumps it for an interception. McCoury had a similar pass breakup on a Waller in-breaker that was also man-free coverage earlier.
Another concept the Pats used to defend Waller was cutting off him coming across the field. New England dials up its one-cross match coverage where the primary defender, Joejuan Williams, falls off Waller if he runs a crosser with McCourty cutting him off on the far hash. When McCourty cuts the crosser, Williams then rallies back to the middle of the field to replace Devin as the “robber” safety. The scheme forces Carr to throw the ball away after the pocket collapses on third down.
Lastly, the Patriots utilized another match coverage by passing Waller off when he ran under the defense. On the play above, Williams is once again the primary man in coverage and will stay on Waller if he runs vertically upfield. When Waller breaks underneath the defense, Williams passes him off to Jason McCourty, and the second-year DB becomes a zone defender on that third of the field. Williams does an excellent job of dropping underneath the corner route, forcing Carr to take the throw short of the sticks.
The Patriots said all week that they had a good plan for Waller, and how many times have we seen an opposing skill player get all the attention just to have Belichick’s guys erase him?
Still, taking the game plan crafted by the coaching staff during the week and executing it so flawlessly on game-day must be a great feeling if you’re the Pats head coach.
5. Cam Newton’s Ball Placement Not as Sharp Against Raiders
After an MVP-like performance a week ago, Newton’s heroics were mostly tamed by the Raiders defense in a surprising outcome that this scribe didn’t see coming.
Credit to Vegas’s defense for mostly shutting down the Pats’ passing attack in what looked like a juicy matchup for Newton to have another good day through the air.
The Pats quarterback had his worst play of the season to date, one he completely took credit for after the game, on a first-quarter interception thrown directly to Abram. An example of Cam trying to do too much after breaking tackles in the pocket.
There were also errant throws to N’Keal Harry with the safety closing, and Newton admitted to missing Damiere Byrd for a touchdown right before he scrambled for 21 yards.
Still, his overall timing and rhythm were sound, despite the erratic decisions and ball placement, and we saw some of the old Brady schemes out in full-force to get something going.
Here, the Pats are running their fake bubble screen concept where they sell the screen, with Newton’s pump-fake and the lead blocker’s acting job, then release them upfield. Newton gets the Raiders DBs to jump Harry on the screen and then makes an accurate throw to Byrd, who ends up with a 23-yard gain after breaking a tackle.
Along with his 17 completions, Newton also elevated the Pats offense by scrambling for 21 yards in a big second-half run. The play was a great schematic teaching point that changes the equation for opposing defenses with a mobile QB for New England.
As Newton drops back to pass, Pats wideout Julian Edelman draws two defenders, and the Raiders don’t allocate a QB spy to Cam when they drop seven into coverage. Newton realizes that there’s no spy from the defense, does a tremendous escaping act in the pocket, and runs free.
If teams continue to guard Edelman with multiple defenders, it stresses what they can do to contain Newton, and he can either take off or force them to single-cover his top target.
6. N’Keal Harry Quietly Doing His Job Despite Box Score Stats
Although Harry only had two catches for 34 yards, the second-year wideout continues to function well within the game plan. No, Harry isn’t making splash plays all over the field. But he’s doing his job within the structure of the scheme and figuring things out.
Harry is blocking well in the run game for the most part, and when he’s targeted in the passing game, he’s showing much better route-running technique through three games.
On his 27-yard catch and run, Harry’s release at the line prevents Raiders rookie Damon Arnette from getting his hands on him, a good start. Then, Harry does enough to sell a vertical route to get Arnette over the top and stops down in two steps in his break to lose Arnette at the top of the route.
The suddenness in his release and footwork at the top of the route are two clear signs of improvement from Harry, even if it’s not fully reflected in the box score.
7. Patriots Run Defense Survives, Doesn’t Overreact to Early Rushing Success
The Patriots coaching staff overreacted to Chris Carson and the Seahawks rushing attack last week. Yes, Seattle gashed them, but they should’ve adjusted and stuck with the plan.
Instead, the Pats got nervous and put linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley and Brandon Copeland on the field to beef up their run defense, and Russell Wilson made them pay through the air.
This week, Belichick learned from his mistakes and didn’t stray away from the game plan despite Josh Jacobs’s success on the ground in the first half. New England’s best personnel is in their secondary, and they’ll need to remain patient and live with the yards on the ground in favor of playing nickel and dime defenses with five or more defensive backs.
They’ll also need more plays from Lawrence Guy and Ja’Whaun Bentley like this one. Guy does well to anchor against a double-team on the interior, giving Bentley time to close things down from the edge and make a tackle behind the line of scrimmage.
New England’s run defense will look shaky at times with so many defensive backs on the field, but if they can prevent offenses from completely taking over the game on the ground, they’ll win plenty.
8 Julian Edelman Follows Up Career Performance With Only Two Catches
The Raiders and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther saw the tape from last week and were determined to prevent a repeat schooling from Edelman on Sunday.
Although there’s a little bit of deja vu, as in who will get open outside of Edelman, the game didn’t call for a big passing day, and the Pats got away with their struggles in that regard.
Still, Edelman reminded us what makes him so difficult to cover with this 15-yard reception. The Pats run their high-low crossers concept off play-action with Edelman on the intermediate over route. When it flips to the end zone angle, you’ll see the flawless technique to re-stem his route after the inside release. Once Edelman gets inside positioning, he immediately gets vertical upfield again, or re-stems, before snapping the route off. The re-stem action is how you set up the defender for an explosive break and puts the defender on Edelman’s back (stacked).
Edelman’s route running is always super due to the little details in his game that are often missed.
9. Patriots Ditch Six OL Package Without David Andrews
After featuring six offensive linemen heavily in the first two weeks, the Pats went away from the package without Andrews. Most of their explosive runs came out of their 21 package with fullback Jakob Johnson, while they ran the vast majority of their plays out of traditional three wide receiver sets. New England made up for their lack of a sixth offensive lineman by implementing more of their two-back “pony” packages, with Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead on the field together for five snaps.
10. Play of the Game: Rex Burkhead’s 11-Yard Touchdown Catch
We couldn’t go the entire way without crediting Rex Burkhead, who found the end zone three times in a great all-around performance. On his first touchdown, McDaniels was in his bag, setting up a screen to his trusty running back. The Pats send Edelman in “orbit” motion as eye candy for the defense and as a way to clear out the right sideline. The motion gets Burkhead started, then he takes over by making a devastating open-field cut on Johnathan Abram after picking up a block from Shaq Mason, and goes airborne into the end zone. Newton was effusive in his praise for Burkhead in his post-game press conference.