LANDOVER, Maryland — the Patriots offense woke up in the second half as New England cruised to its fifth win of the sevason with a 33-7 victory over the Redskins at FedExField.
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In the first half, Tom Brady’s side of the ball, especially the offensive line, was a trainwreck. Nobody is trying to sugarcoat it. There are warning signs about Brady’s supporting cast that are hard to ignore.
But a pissed off locker room at halftime found their groove by returning to a power running game, and hopefully, they’ll build on the things they did well moving forward.
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Defensively, the Patriots put a sloppy effort on a 65-yard reverse touchdown behind them and shut out the Washington offense for the final 55 minutes.
Here are ten things we learned as the Patriots improved to a perfect 5-0 on the season:
(shout out to @ftbeard_17 for his help with the highlights)
1. Patriots Running Game Erupts in Second Half
Tom Brady tied a career-high for pass attempts in a half with 31 in the first half on Sunday. In the second half, Brady only threw it 11 times with the running game finding its stride.
The Patriots ran for 111 yards as a team in the final two quarters with Sony Michel accounting for 81 of those, and the New England offensive line opened some huge holes for the 2018 first-round pick.
The lack of a running game was beginning to anchor the offense and the offensive line, but the group ignited the unit in the final two quarters.
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On Michel’s longest run of the day, the Patriots opened a hole for him on a split-zone action, which they’re using more this year. The blockers on the line of scrimmage step towards the sideline to their right while Ryan Izzo comes across the formation. The movement by the OL gets the defense to flow to its left, allowing them to pin down their blocks, and then Sony cuts it back off of nice blocks from Izzo and Newhouse.
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A few plays later, Michel found the end zone on a counter play with a great block from fullback Jakob Johnson. Michel remains patient behind his blocks to allow Johnson to get up on the linebacker, and then shows off good explosiveness to break a few tackles for the score.
In more good Sony news, the Pats running back also got involved in the passing game, tripling his targets from the first four games of the season. He even shook the linebacker in the flat.
The Patriots offense, as currently constructed, needs to have a productive backfield and ground game. Hopefully, it can grow on the success from Sunday.
2. Dont’a Hightower Comes Back and Dominates
After sitting out last week, Pats linebacker Dont’a Hightower’s shoulder appears to be okay.
Hightower led the team with eight tackles, two sacks, four tackles for loss and broke up a pass that he nearly intercepted. How’s that for a day at the office?
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Speaking to Hightower in the Pats locker room, he said that he knew the play on his solo sack after Redskins wide receiver Trey Quinn motioned into the backfield. On the clip above, you can see Hightower barking out signals to Devin McCourty, calling out Quinn’s slide route across the formation. Based on film study, Hightower knew that he’d have no coverage responsibilities, so he took a chance that it was the same play he saw on tape and guessed right.
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Hightower’s knowledge of the defense and his ability to pick up things from film study based on formations and pre-snap information is incredible. Along with being a physical presence, he’s one of New England’s smartest players.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) October 6, 2019
More Hightower: he explained in detail the versatility of the Pats linebacker group after the game.
3. Tom Brady Cleans Up the Offense in the Second Half
For the second consecutive week, Brady had a bad turnover in the red zone that took points off the board.
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Halfway through the second quarter, Brady was already under siege in the pocket. But the six-time Super Bowl champ will tell you himself that it was a bad play by the QB regardless of the protection.
With that said, Brady averaged 12.9 yards per attempt in the second half, and threw three touchdowns, granted against a weak opponent. He had the interception and missed Josh Gordon early on a post-corner route, but his ball placement was on-point other than that.
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We’ll get to the beauty of a throw to Brandon Bolden later, so here’s Brady’s six-yard touchdown toss to Julian Edelman. No, this wasn’t a difficult throw, but watch the quarterback’s eyes. Brady looks to his right where his running back and tight end release downfield, and that entices the middle linebacker in zone coverage to widen to the flat. After moving the linebacker out of the way, Brady comes back to Edelman on the slant into the vacated area.
As always, we’ll see how it looks on film, but my initial viewing suggested this was a workmanlike performance for the GOAT.
4. Offensive Line Struggles Big-Time in the First Half, Finishes Strong
Several things went wrong for the Patriots offensive line in the first half. There was confusion, blown one-on-one blocks, and multiple signs that the group wasn’t on the same page. Even three-man rushes by the ‘Skins were putting pressure on Brady.
With offensive line play, having five guys seeing the game through the same lens is paramount, and that wasn’t happening in the first half.
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On Brady’s interception, the Redskins sent a zero blitz with six defenders in the rush. Left tackle Marshall Newhouse blocked down onto the linebacker blitzing inside. Newhouse and Thuney end up blocking the same defender leaving two unblocked Redskins rushers. Newhouse wouldn’t go into detail after the game saying he’ll have to watch the film, but my theory is that he expected the line to block down and the running back to stay in to block Kerrigan off the edge. Again, not on the same page.
Along with communication breakdowns, the Patriots also need better play from their regular starters; it’s not just on the new guys like Newhouse and center Ted Karras.
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On this second-quarter sack of Brady, right tackle Marcus Cannon exposes his chest and gets bull-rushed into Brady by second-year pro Tim Settle. Very rarely do you see rushers go through Cannon. Usually, it’s the speed guys that give him issues.
The Pats OL figured things out in the second half, and we’ll credit them for that, but they need Cannon, right guard Shaq Mason, and left guard Joe Thuney to be better.
5. Julian Edelman Delivers Vintage Performance Despite Injury
In case you didn’t already know, Edelman is tough as nails.
The Pats receiver caught eight of his nine targets for a game-high 110 receiving yards and a score despite nursing a rib cartilage injury that’s causing him pain on the field.
Watching Edelman run routes is a treat every week, but what always stands out is his ability to be physical at the top of his routes, so I asked him about it after the game.
“Well, they’re going to put their hands on you, so you try to take their hands off,” he said. “There’s a whole bunch of techniques. Sometimes you gotta be physical, and sometimes you have to beat them with quickness. It’s all just a feel thing.”
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On his 31-yard catch and run, Edelman takes Quinton Dunbar’s hands off of him. Dunbar tries to jam Edelman at the line of scrimmage, but the Pats receivers swats off the jam and runs away from the Redskins cornerback coming across the field, and wins the foot race after the catch.
The Patriots don’t like to talk about pecking orders at wide receiver, but they need Edelman to produce like their number one option, and he did that in the win on Sunday.
6. Josh McDaniels Gets One of My Game Balls
Let me take a second to get on the soapbox for McDaniels. Yes, sometimes he can get too cute, and the direct snap on fourth down in the first half was one of those instances.
But the game plan for the Pats offense was excellent outside of that, and it started with breaking tendencies and passing out of heavy personnel groupings.
While Tom Brady was on the field, the Patriots had two tight ends on the field for 12 snaps after going with two tight ends only twice in the first four games combined. Speaking to head coach Bill Belichick after the game, he said that the team game-planned to use more two-tight end packages, and that was apparent on the first touchdown drive.
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Brady completed back-to-back passes to tight ends Ryan Izzo and Matt LaCosse for 51 yards to spearhead a 75-yard touchdown drive. While Belichick pointed to the game plan, Izzo mentioned the health of LaCosse and the Patriots having two tight ends available.
Whatever it was, the Redskins weren’t expecting it all, and why would they? The Patriots tight ends came into the game with five targets, four catches, 77 yards and zero TDs.
On Sunday, Izzo and LaCosse combined for three catches for 61 yards and Izzo’s first career touchdown.
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Along with using the tight ends more, the Patriots also threw the ball to running back Sony Michel finally, another tendency breaker. Michel hauled in all three of his targets for 32 yards.
After a rough week in Buffalo, McDaniels bounced-back nicely in the nation’s capital.
7. Mike Nugent (aka the Nuge) Makes Patriots Debut
The post-Gostkowski era with veteran Mike Nugent didn’t get off to a great start when he missed wide right on his first extra-point attempt.
“I think it was a little robotic,” Nugent said after the game. “Kind of like a golf swing, if you’re really stiff, if you aren’t fluid through the ball it’s not going to go where you want it to go.”
Once Nugent warmed up, he made the rest of his kicks with two made field goals and three extra points. Yes, one of those extra points doinked off the left upright on its way through.
As for kickoffs, punter Jake Bailey boomed all seven for touchbacks. The Patriots love the short kickoff that forces a return so they can improve field position, but they might need to settle for touchbacks with Bailey taking on those duties.
On the whole, you’ll take the kicking performance you got from Nugent on Sunday. Make the easy ones, and don’t be a complete disaster on the extra points.
8. Multiple Patriots DBs Needed to Replace Patrick Chung
On his way to the podium, I quickly asked Pats captain Devin McCourty if he was most responsible for filling Chung’s role on the defense.
“It was multiple guys, we all needed to step up,” McCourty said back to me.
After ruling out Chung on Saturday, the Patriots lost one of their most versatile players in their secondary. The veteran safety plays in the box, as a slot defender and as a strong safety, which isn’t easy to replicate with one player.
To replace Chung, the Patriots relied on McCourty for more snaps in the box as the money-backer and slot defender, dropping Jon Jones to free safety at times. On passing downs, they brought Duron Harmon on the field to play free safety and moved Jones back to his usual spot as the nickel corner. And late in the game, Terrence Brooks saw some time in the Chung role.
As expected, the Patriots were fine without Chung against the lowly Redskins, but the shuffling does highlight his importance and versatility.
9. Stephon Gilmore Mostly Shadows Redskins Rookie Terry McLaurin
The Patriots put their top cornerback on a rookie showing deep respect for Terry McLaurin. McLaurin is one of the few bright spots for this Washington team averaging over 85 yards per game in the first four games of 2019. Due to the rookies’ speed, Gilmore played a lot of off coverage against McLaurin, which made him susceptible to routes like slants and comebacks. McLaurin had three catches for 51 yards on those quicker routes, but Gilmore kept the speedster in front of him all day long. In the last two weeks, Gilmore dealt with two track guys in McLaurin and Buffalo’s John Brown. You’ll give up the underneath stuff to those guys as long as you eliminate the big plays.
10. Play of the Game: Brady’s touchdown to pass to Brandon Bolden
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The latest Brady dime was on a wheel route to running back Brandon Bolden to open the scoring in the second half for the Patriots. The play design was similar to James White’s reception last week against the Bills, but this time the Pats had two tight ends on the field. Izzo and LaCosse go across the field, clearing out the right sideline for Bolden to work against the linebacker. The Redskins sent a delayed blitz at Brady, and he moved to his right to avoid the pressure and threw off his back foot to the open Bolden. I thought Patrick Mahomes was the only one that could make off-balance throws. Guess not.