FOXBORO — The Patriots continued their two-week glorified preseason in the AFC East with a 30-14 victory over the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
New England’s defense became the first unit to not allow a touchdown in its first three games of the season in the Super Bowl era.
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And the 105 total yards they allowed on Sunday were a new Belichick era record.
In the first three games, the Patriots defense was on the field for 37 drives. On those 37 drives, along with only surrendering one scoring drive, 19 of them ended in either a three and out or turnover.
Although it’s fair to point out the level of competition, the Patriots defense thoroughly dominated its first three opponents making the Dolphins and Jets look like CFB teams.
On the other side of the ball, the Patriots offense started hot, and Tom Brady threw for over 300 yards for the 89th time in his career, but there’s room for improvement with the second-half performance.
And unfortunately, injuries became a major storyline as the Patriots got pretty banged up with Julian Edelman (chest), Dont’a Hightower (shoulder) and others suffering injuries.
Without further ado, here are ten things we learned as the Patriots improved to 3-0 on the season:
1. Tom Brady’s Excellent September Continues
Could we be witnessing the start of a potential MVP campaign for Tom Brady at 42 years old? Yes, there are other quarterbacks around the league off to great starts as well, but he was nearly flawless once again on Sunday afternoon. Here’s his stat line through three games: 72-106 (67.9%), 303.7 pass YPG, 8.6 yards per attempt, seven touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a 116.5 rating. If Brady keeps this pace up for 16 games, he’d throw for the second-most yards in his career and tie a career-high in yards per attempt. Let’s get to a few of his throws:
Brady made two ridiculous downfield connections with Josh Gordon in the second half, great plays by both quarterback and wide receiver.
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On the second of the two plays, the Patriots faked a screen to wide receiver Jakobi Meyers. Meyers comes behind Brady and released into the flat. Brady looks at Meyers, the receivers to the play side mimic blocking the corners and then release downfield. Brady flips his attention upfield and fits a ball to Gordon between three Jet defenders. Old quarterbacks with declining arm strength don’t throw 22-yard ropes into the teeth of the defense like that.
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Along with the throw to Gordon, Brady made another great tight-window throw to Julian Edelman on third and ten. The Jets have Edelman bracketed on the play with a corner in man coverage and safety help over the top. Edelman ran a 12-yard in cut at the sticks and Brady purposely throws low to protect him against the oncoming safety. Edelman goes to the ground to scoop the ball up and move the chains.
In all, I had Brady down with two minus throws both low ones to Edelman and one was nearly intercepted. But his ball placement and decision making were superb, and he’s playing at an MVP level through three games.
We are spoiled and extremely fortunate to watch Brady’s career. Don’t take it for granted.
2. Patriots Lose Julian Edelman to Injury, X-Rays Negative
The outcome of this game was never in doubt. However, the second-most important player on the team sat out the entire second half after suffering a rib injury in the second quarter. The early news on Edelman is positive as X-rays came back negative, but the second half on Sunday served as a reminder of just how important he is to the team. Next week in Buffalo will be difficult offensively if Edelman can’t go.
On a positive note, Edelman did have seven catches for 62 yards and a touchdown in the first half.
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His chemistry with Brady on low throws over the middle is tremendous. Brady purposely throws them low so that Edelman can avoid hits in a high-impact area of the field, and Edelman is fantastic at sliding down and scooping them off the turf. I love watching those two work.
3. Jamie Collins is Flat-Out Dominating Dudes
When the Patriots brought Collins back, I’ll admit that I wasn’t on board with the signing. Now, I’ll gladly accept that I was very wrong. Collins was fantastic again on Sunday bringing his season totals to 18 tackles, 2.5 sacks, one QB hit, five tackles for loss, two interceptions, one pass breakup and one of those interceptions went for a pick-six. Whew.
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Speaking after the game, Collins acknowledged his growth as a player and how that is leading to faster processing skills to react to plays in real-time.
Collins’s teammates do nothing but praise him for what he has done. Stephon Gilmore told me that Collins makes plays like the ones we see in games every single day in practice and it’s not a surprise to anyone that he’s playing so well.
On the freelancing rumors from his first stint in New England, if those issues ever did exist, they no longer do according to teammates and coaches.
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The splash plays are great, but this second-down run stop was a microcosm of the new Jamie Collins. Collins has outside contain and shows excellent discipline to play his assignment. He sets the edge and waits for Bell to come to him and makes the play.
The Pats linebacker is making the big and little plays and is one of the best players at his position in the NFL through three weeks.
4. Patriots Shut Down Le’Veon Bell
The Patriots defense held New York’s big offseason acquisition to a 2.9-yard average on his 22 touches with excellent team defense.
“Just good team defense. Nobody can stop him. It just takes everyone working together on that,” head coach Bill Belichick said after the game.
Along with Belichick’s praise, defensive tackle Danny Shelton shared some insight on the team’s strategy to slow down Bell on Sunday.
“Yeah, it sucks. Upfront we have to be patient and eat up those blocks as much as we can. I don’t want to see the film because a lot of the plays was him running right behind my guy and me trying to hold him up and getting ran over with the blocker. If I’m able to do my job, we can execute the game plan.”
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Bell is an incredibly patient runner that’s terrific at setting up blocks and making quick cuts off of his offensive line to find creases. The Patriots put the onus on the big defensive tackles to occupy the offensive line so that the linebackers could swarm Bell and make tackles.
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The Patriots also did a great job of waiting on Bell to make the first move, remaining disciplined while he danced around his blocks.
The former Steelers running back is New York’s only big-time weapon, and with the Patriots swarming him on every touch, the Jets offense had nothing else to move the ball.
5. Patriots Feast On Weak Jets Offensive Line
The five sacks on quarterback Luke Falk doesn’t do it justice; the Patriots got after the Jets QB. New England’s pressure packages are fantastic to watch as they confuse blocking rules and overwhelm opponents with great execution on games.
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Let’s start with an overload blitz that led to a sack for Jamie Collins. The Patriots put Shelton at nose tackle and stand three guys up over two blockers (Hightower, Simon, Collins). All three Pats linebackers come on a blitz with Collins and Simon twisting on the edge. The running back releases downfield into a pass route which leaves Collins unblocked for the sack.
The Patriots ran what Belichick refers to as a “game” for a third-down sack later on. A game is usually a two or three-man play where the defenders pick for one another to get someone free.
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The Patriots ran a two-man game with Adam Butler and Dont’a Hightower here. Butler’s job on the play is to penetrate and pick the defenders off from blocking the looping Hightower. Hightower gets through the line, and Butler works to the quarterback as well to split the sack.
“Whether I’m getting it, Hightower or Jamie Collins or anybody is getting it our goal is to win as a team,” Butler said. “It does feel good to pick, as you said.”
Butler is starting to show up on the stat sheet this season, but many of his rushes free up others to make plays on the quarterback as well.
6. Josh Gordon Gives the Patriots What They Need With Big Plays
Since Gordon joined the Patriots last season, Tom Brady is only completing 58.8 percent of his passes intended for Gordon. Although the completion rate isn’t high, Gordon brings explosive plays to the Patriots offense, which is exactly what they need out of the former Pro Bowler. Gordon’s four receptions of 20-plus yards lead the team through three weeks, and they make up for any inconsistencies that the offense might have like in the second half on Sunday.
Gordon’s highlight-reel catch in the third quarter was a perfect example of his value to the Patriots offense.
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The Patriots faced a third and 22 in the third quarter. Gordon starts on Brady’s left as the outside receivers in a reduced split (inside the numbers). Gordon than ran an out and up down the sideline against a cover-3 structure by the Jets. With everyone’s eyes on Brady, Gordon sneaks behind the boundary corner playing a third of the field. Brady puts the ball high where only Gordon can get it, and the 6-3 receiver climbs the ladder, taps the toes and makes the catch of the season in Week 3.
Brady will move the sticks with Edelman, Dorsett and James White and he’ll get chunk plays with Gordon.
7. Marshall Newhouse Fills in Admirably in First Start With Patriots
The veteran offensive tackle, as Dante Scarnecchia told us on Friday, got the start at left tackle against the Jets. Newhouse’s experience and football IQ make him a quick study, and he seems to have a decent grasp of what the Patriots went from him in a short period. The pass-blocking isn’t always pretty, and he doesn’t finish in the running game with much power. But he kept himself between his man and Brady often enough that he wasn’t a liability. On initial viewing, Newhouse got the job done, which is all the Pats can ask for over the next eight weeks.
8. Patriots Running Game Remains an Issue
The Patriots offense can’t run the football. The numbers and film both aren’t good. They’re averaging 3.2 yards per rush, Sony Michel is averaging 2.4 yards per rush, and in the first two games, the Patriots ranked 21st in PFF’s run-blocking grades (2nd in 2018). Here are a few thoughts on the issues:
- Sony Michel’s inability to make people miss is concerning, and yes, his usage is predictable. The Pats run the ball on 76 percent of his snaps. With that said, they did the same thing last year and pounded teams on the ground. If the blocking returns to form, so will Michel. He’s a back that needs holes. He won’t create something out of nothing consistently.
- The issues upfront have a lot of layers: an influx of injuries on the offensive line (Wynn), James Develin’s absence on Sunday and overall poor execution by some of the carryovers from last year, mainly Shaq Mason. Mason was better on Sunday.
- No Gronk in the running game. The Patriots didn’t just go from the most dominant run blocker of his generation, and maybe ever, to replacement level. They’ve gone from Gronk to rock bottom. Izzo and LaCosse (when active) give them nothing. Pray that Ben Watson will save the position.
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As I mentioned, the good news is that Shaq Mason returned to form on Sunday. On Sony Michel’s touchdown run, the Patriots got great blocks from Mason, right tackle Marcus Cannon and center Ted Karras. Cannon’s down block seals the edge allowing Mason to pull and kick out the linebacker in the hole while Karras gets upfield to wall off the last line of defense. If the Patriots block like that more often, they’ll get back to running the football with consistency.
9. Patriots Vanilla With Second-Half Personnel Groupings
After the injury to Edelman, and with fullback James Develin inactive, the Patriots went with basic 11-personnel in the second half (3 WR, 1 RB, 1 TE).
In the first half, we saw the typical shuffling of personnel groupings and four wide receiver sets.
But the Edelman injury led to a heavy dosage of rookie Jakobi Meyers (48 snaps) and some Gunner Olszewski (seven) in the second half. As a result, the Patriots kept it simple, and mostly nixed the 10 personnel.
Without Develin, the Patriots ran ten plays with two running backs and zero plays with a traditional fullback. Jakob Johnson logged two snaps on the kneel-downs to end the game.
10. Jake Bailey and the Punt Brigade
Patriots punter Jake Bailey is good, and so is his partner in crime, Mathew Slater. Bailey had three punts travel 50 or more yards with the Patriots downing five of them inside the 20. Five.
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One of those five came on an incredible effort by Slater who batted the ball out of the end zone to Jonathan Jones who downed the punt on the Jets one-yard line.
Slater told me after the game, “Jake did a heck of a job of giving me a ball that I could try to make a play on. Sometimes you get a lucky bounce, but I thought he punted very well today. I think we did a good job of controlling field position when we could today.”
We were all sad to see Super Bowl standout Ryan Allen go, but the Patriots have a weapon in Jake Bailey. That Slater guy is pretty good, too.