EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ — The Patriots didn’t play a perfect game at MetLife Stadium on Sunday afternoon, but it was enough to improve to 8-3 on the season with a 27-13 win over the Jets.
Above all else, the Patriots improved in some critical areas of concern before the bye week, and the return of Rob Gronkowski was a welcomed sight as it got the offense, and quarterback Tom Brady, into a rhythm.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Jets offense got off to a hot start, but ultimately only managed 13 points and a modest 338 total yards.
The Patriots also improved to 3-3 on the road this season, and although the Jets aren’t among the league’s elite, delivered a much better performance away from Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
Head coach Bill Belichick’s team still has plenty of room for improvement, but the Patriots are headed in the right direction based on their second-half performance.
Below, we’ll go over ten things we learned from the Patriots’ eighth win of the season:
1. Tom Brady Bounces Back After Rough Performance in Tennessee
On initial viewing, this was one of Tom Brady’s best performances of the season. Many of the issues that I wrote about following the loss to the Titans disappeared for Brady on Sunday, including his poor footwork in the pocket and mishandling of pressure. On the Patriots’ opening drive, Brady had Gronk wide open on an out route but held onto the football far too long, and this scribe was worried Brady was still in a rut. But from that point on, his ball placement, timing, and ability to deliver accurate throws under pressure were superb.
The one throw that sums up Brady’s afternoon perfectly was this second a ten throw to Julian Edelman in the first half. The Patriots brought in backup tackle LaAdrian Waddle as a sixth offensive lineman, but Waddle got beaten badly around the edge by Jets linebacker Frankie Luvu who delivered a pretty significant hit on Brady in the pocket. Brady didn’t flinch as we saw in Tennessee and stood in there while delivering a perfectly placed pass to Edelman along the sideline for the first down. Frankly, Brady hasn’t been making these kinds of plays as often as we’re used to seeing this season.
Throws like that one to Edelman, and the touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski, are reminiscent of Brady’s 2017 season when he was the best quarterback in the NFL under pressure.
2. Gronk Returns and Everything is Right in Patriot Land
The return of tight end Rob Gronkowski was everything you could’ve asked for if you were a Patriots fan. Sure, three catches for 56 yards is a modest stat line, but the trickle-down effect that Gronk’s presence has on this offense both in the passing game and on the ground was apparent. With Gronk on the field, all the sudden the target distribution makes more sense with Brady completing passes to eight different receivers, and the Pats have a season-high 215 rushing yards.
All I wanted to see out of Gronk was a flash or two, showing us that the former All-Pro tight end still has enough gas in the tank to make a big play when the team needs it, and that’s what we saw on his 34-yard touchdown grab in the first quarter.
On the play, the Jets dared Tom Brady to take a shot down the seam to Gronk based on the coverage. Bowles called an inverted cover-2 with cornerback Morris Claiborne dropping into the deep half of the field instead of the safety who creeps up into a robber position. That leaves the middle of the field open, a perfect time to throw a seam pattern. The Pats have the ideal route called to Gronk and Brady fits the ball in before Claiborne closes for the score with #87 absorbing the hit while hanging onto the football. A vintage Gronk and Brady moment.
Describing the play, Brady said, “I think those are certain ones where Gronk is probably the only tight end in the league that can make that play. He played great.”
We wanted to see a flash, and we got one; when the Patriots take Gronk out of the garage, he’s still capable of making all-world type plays.
3. Patriots Offensive Line Sets the Tone in Win
We’ll get to rookie running back Sony Michel soon, but the Patriots’ first-round pick said himself that his offensive line deserved the game ball for their performance on Sunday, and he was 100 percent correct.
The Patriots’ offensive line, in many ways, was the story of the game allowing Brady time to operate on some key plays and paving the way for Michel on the ground. Now onto the tape:
Let’s start with a physical ground attack, where the offensive line imposed their will on a decent Jets defensive front.
On Michel’s 33-yard run in the fourth quarter, the Pats completely turned out the New York defensive line to open up a massive hole for Michel. In his return, Shaq Mason picked up where he left off destroying Luvu on the counter play. The Patriots bring Mason around as the pulling guard, and he kicks out Luvu to get things rolling. Then, you’ll see the rest of the line down block to push the New York defense out of the hole, and fullback James Develin leads the way for Michel who accelerates to daylight. Michel’s burst and vision to cut this run to his right makes for an explosive play, but that’s a gaping hole for any running back.
In the passing game, the offensive line held up well in a few critical situations to allow Brady to push the ball down the field.
Here, the Jets only rush three and the Pats OL isn’t having any of it, dominating those three rushers which gave Brady and wide receiver Josh Gordon ample time to find a hole in the Jets zone coverage. Gordon sits down in the open area, and Brady rifles the pass in there for a 23-yard gain on first down.
After the game, many of the players spoke about how the Patriots’ coaching staff challenged the running backs and offensive line to be more consistent in the running game, and the guys up front delivered in a big way on Sunday.
4. Sony Michel Rushes For a Career-High 133 Yards
Although there were some big holes, rookie Sony Michel deserves credit as well for making the most of the opportunities presented to him by his offensive line. After a light workload against the Titans, Michel totted the rock 21 times on Sunday, and for the first time this season we got to see how electric he can be in the open field.
Michel’s 31-yard run to open the second half was arguably his best of the season. The Jets linebackers close the initial hole, but he’s able to see an opening on the backside and bounces it in that direction. He then runs off of a soul-crushing block by left tackle Trent Brown showing quick feet to dance around Brown and flashes his elite acceleration to burst into the secondary. It takes two Jet defenders at that point, as Michel breaks a tackle in the open field, to bring down the former Georgia star. This run had it all: vision, speed, agility, and the ability to gain yards after contact.
There will still be Michel doubters that will say it was all his offensive line, but Michel’s vision and ability to eat up yardage quickly once he gets into the secondary is exactly why the Patriots drafted him in the first round.
5. Penalties, Penalties and More Penalties
One cannot write about this game without talking about the 19 combined penalties between the two teams, 11 of which were on the Patriots. Coming into the game, the Pats were the least penalized team in the NFL, but referee Shawn Hochuli’s crew entered Sunday’s action leading the league in called penalties averaging 21.4 flags per game; something had to give, and it didn’t favor Bill Belichick’s team. The Pats were called for a season-high 11 infractions for 105 penalty yards. There were two critical calls made in the first half that both cost the Pats big-time. First, defensive end Deatrich Wise was flagged for a roughing the passer penalty on the Jets’ lone touchdown drive of the game, a good call by the referees. And second, left tackle Trent Brown got called for a hold that negated another long Michel run, which was of the weaker variety. As you’d expect after the game, Belichick wasn’t pleased with his team for all the laundry, but this seemed like an aberration with a flag-happy crew calling the game on Sunday.
6. Jets Expose Patriots Weakness at Linebacker With Heady Offensive Game Plan
As you’d expect from a divisional opponent, the Jets’ familiarity with New England’s scheme, and it’s deficiencies on defense, led to a sound plan of attack by offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates. The Jets played a significant amount of snaps on offense with multiple tight ends and condensed formations hinting at a run-first attack, and then attacked the Patriots’ linebackers in coverage through the air with the Pats in base defense to defend the run-heavy look.
As you can see here, the strategy got Jets rookie tight end Chris Herndon into some favorable matchups against the Pats linebackers in man coverage. Herndon runs a crossing route with Dont’a Hightower chasing him across the field, and the fourth-round pick easily wins the foot race against the thumping linebacker for a 21-yard gain.
The Jets’ strategy to force the Patriots to play multiple linebackers worked, and if they had the horses at tight end and running back to expose New England, it could’ve been uglier.
It will be interesting to see if future opponents use a similar strategy.
7. Patriots Depth Corners a Cause For Concern
Although the Jets offense is putrid, the Pats defense, for the most part, did its job on Sunday holding New York to only 13 points and 338 total yards.
However, one area of the defense that’s on my radar after this one is the cornerback position behind Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore is terrific, but it was an average day for number two corner Jason McCourty, and nickel corner Jon Jones was benched in this one after Jermaine Kearse went off in the first quarter. Rookie J.C. Jackson bumped McCourty to the slot replacing Jones as the third corner and played well, but the Patriots have matchups against the Vikings and Steelers on the horizon, two teams that feature two of the best wide receiver groups in the NFL.
My biggest concern stems from the Patriots’ inability outside of Gilmore to stick with opposing wideouts in man coverage, something they’ll have to do against teams like Minnesota, Pittsburgh and possibly Kansas City in January.
On Enunwa’s 41-yard catch and run, the Jets wideout burned McCourty on a crossing pattern out of a stack from a reduced alignment (closer to the offensive line). McCourty got a bad read on Enunwa’s route release, expecting the Jets wideout to continue vertically downfield, and when the veteran cut across the field, the McCourty twin got beaten badly.
The Patriots might get some reinforcements from rookie Duke Dawson in the slot moving forward, but a team with better receivers and a better quarterback will give the Patriots fits if they play as they did on Sunday.
8. Kick/Punt Coverage Improves Against Top Returner Andre Roberts
Entering Week 12, the Patriots ranked 18th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric on special teams. In particular, the kick coverage units have been on everyone’s radar as they’ve uncharacteristically struggled to cover both kickoffs and punt returns this season.
However, the area that arguably improved the most following the bye week was the punt coverage, and punter Ryan Allen was a big reason why. Jets returner Andre Roberts led the league in punt return average coming into Sunday at 16.8 yards per punt return, but the Pats held him to just one return yard on four punts. Allen was terrific, pinning Roberts against the sideline on multiple occasions while still booming the ball over 45 yards in the air. After the game, Allen told me that it wasn’t necessarily the Patriots’ plan to punt the ball out of bounds to keep it away from Roberts, but they wanted to avoid punting it into the middle of the field which Allen did beautifully. Furthermore, at his post-game press conference, head coach Bill Belichick praised Allen’s performance in his opening remarks. It was indeed a good day for the Patriots’ punter.
9. Obi Melifonwu Playing Hybrid Safety Role vs. Tight Ends
In his Patriots’ debut, defensive back Obi Melifonwu saw some early snaps on defense in a new four-safety look that could be a factor moving forward for the Patriots. The UCONN product only played nine snaps on defense but was a core special teamer on Sunday, and those nine snaps were very telling. Melifonwu played primarily at safety close to the line of scrimmage as a coverage player on tight ends, which is the role he predominantly played in college. In Oakland, the Raiders tried to turn the 6-4 defensive back into a corner, and that didn’t go so well. But this role seems to fit Melifonwu well and could be the key for the Patriots to slowing down opposing teams tight ends, which they’ve struggled to do so far this season.
I asked Melifonwu after the game if he’d like to play at safety going forward and he said, “yeah, I feel like all of college I played safety, and I feel like my role here will be to play safety and defend the tight end position.”
It sounds like that role for Melifonwu could be a win-win for both the player and the team moving forward.
10. Play of the Game: Josh Gordon’s Third-Down Conversion
Lastly, moving forward I’ll give you a play of the game, and this week it’s Josh Gordon’s 17-yard reception on third and ten in the fourth quarter. Gordon quietly had an excellent game, hauling in all five of his targets for 70 yards.
On the play, the Jets brought one of the few blitzes they sent Tom Brady’s way, and unlike in Tennessee, the Pats picked it up well with James White stepping up to take the free rusher off the edge. The Pats’ offensive line kept Brady’s lap clean allowing the Pats quarterback to step up in the pocket, and Gordon won the comeback route with an excellent sliding catch.
Multiple things happened in that play that you have to love as a Patriots fan: the protection held up against a blitz, Brady navigated the pocket and got enough zip on the throw, and Gordon made a spectacular catch.
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