CINCINNATI — The Patriots clinched a playoff berth for a record 11th consecutive season coasting to a 34-13 win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.
As we were zeroing in on kickoff, it felt like the storylines from this one would focus on the most overblown videotaping “controversy” this side of deflategate.
The tape released by Fox’s Jay Glazer proves further that Cincinnati made much ado about nothing, so save me the fake outrage and let’s bury this story like the Patriots just buried the Bengals on their turf.
We knew coming into the week that Zac Taylor’s bunch had no chance at pulling off the upset, and a five-to-zero turnover margin in New England’s favor was all she wrote.
With two interceptions of Andy Dalton, including his second pick-six of the year, Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore cemented his case for Defensive Player of the Year in the NFL.
Gilmore’s ability to anticipate routes based on tells from film study combined with his physical attributes make him the most dominant cornerback in the league today.
He ran most of Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd’s routes better than Boyd did, baited Dalton into throws, and finished the plays with excellent ball skills.
After Sunday’s win, quarterbacks now have a ten-to-25 touchdown to interception ratio with a 57.4 passer rating against the Pats defense, and it all starts with no. 24.
With Gilmore staking his claim for Defensive Player of the Year, the offense, although still inconsistent, showed some signs of life.
We’ll get into Gilmore, the offense, and more as we break down ten things we learned from New England’s 11th victory of the season:
1. Stephon Gilmore is the Defensive Player of the Year
We’ve talked all year about Stephon Gilmore dominating opposing wideouts, and on Sunday, he hauled in nearly as many Andy Dalton passes as the Bengals leading receivers (three versus two).
Over the last eight games, opposing quarterbacks are 18-for-40 for 4.4 yards per pass attempt when targeting Gilmore in coverage. He also has four interceptions in that span and hasn’t allowed a touchdown into his coverage all season. That’s flat out ridiculous.
Gilmore spent most of the afternoon shadowing Bengals number one receiver Tyler Boyd, and he dominated the matchup.
On his first interception, Boyd gets Gilmore a little bit at the line of scrimmage with a nifty one-step stretch release. However, Gilmore said he had a good idea of the route, and undercuts Boyd’s curl after he recovers from a slight hiccup at the line of scrimmage.
On Gilmore’s pick-six, the Pats cornerback knows the route the entire way and is in perfect position with outside leverage to drive on the ball. He hangs back long enough for Dalton to think Boyd is open, then puts his foot in the ground and shoots the flat, taking the Dalton pass to the house for a defensive touchdown.
The Patriots, without much help, trust Gilmore every week on some of the best receivers in the NFL. He takes his matchup and eliminates him from the game.
As every single Patriot defender would attest, everything the top-ranked New England defense does funnels through no. 24.
By the way, another Pats corner, JC Jackson, had a pretty darn good day too. Can you say smooth? Jackson tracks this deep ball effortlessly.
2. Tom Brady’s Inaccurate Afternoon in Cincinnati
When you are the greatest quarterback of all-time and a six-time Super Bowl champ, every play you make on the field is scrutinized to the nth degree. With Tom Brady, we tend to nitpick every decision and throw he makes, and that’s just the burden he carries due to his tremendous success.
However, Sunday was a bad day at the office for the 42-year-old quarterback. Charting the game live, Brady had five wide open misses, most of which came in the first half, and whether it’s the elbow injury or not, Pro Football Focus currently has his game grade at 59.3 out of 100, an “F” for the GOAT. If the grade stands after review, it’ll go down as his third-worst performance of the season behind Buffalo in Week 4 and Philadelphia in Week 11. Let’s get to the tape.
On the very first throw of the afternoon, Brady sailed a ball over Mohamad Sanu’s head on a mesh concept, a throw he usually makes in his sleep. Sanu crosses with Edelman downfield, and has a step and a half on Bengals cornerback BW Webb; Brady just misses it. A sign of things to come.
Later on, Brady has Sanu again, this time on a seam pattern against a half-field safety. The Bengals are in a cover-2 zone, and Sanu gets behind Cincinnati safety Shawn Williams for an easy touchdown. Again, Brady just misses the throw.
There was also a poorly placed pass to Edelman on a comebacker, a missile through Sanu’s hands on fourth down that was high but catchable, and a pass thrown behind Sony Michel in the flat to take another six points off the board.
Brady had a few plus-throws, notably his touchdown toss to rookie N’Keal Harry, but he had a tough time control the ball on Sunday.
3. N’Keal Harry’s Performance Goes Beyond the Box Score
In the stat sheet, Pats first-round pick N’Keal Harry had 37 yards on four touches and hauled in his second career touchdown pass. A good day, but on the surface, not something most people would gush about; well, I’m gushing, and here’s why.
First, we’ll start with the touchdown. Harry described the play as a simple scramble drill where the play broke down, and he needed to find a way to get open for Brady. Harry initially ran a corner route to the back pylon and came free for a split second early, but he wasn’t Brady’s first read. Instead of giving up on the play, the Pats rookie turned back inside, lost the defender, and used all of that length and catch radius to make a diving catch. He’s a red-zone weapon, feed him down there.
Harry also nearly doubled his receiving output on a 36-yard reception that was wiped out by a false start penalty. Harry uses a speed release to blow by BW Webb off the line into a go ball. Harry’s releases are a work in progress, but the speed release, if he can get that explosion consistently, gets him right into the route and cuts down on all the dancing at the line of scrimmage that isn’t his game. He stacks Webb downfield and lays out to snatch the ball out of the air. We saw Harry make plays like that all the time in camp, let’s hope the next one counts.
On the very next play, Harry came right back and converted on third down. This time, the defensive back plays in off coverage, and Harry sits his route down as he should at the first down marker. Then, he turns with the well-placed ball on his outside shoulder away from the coverage and falls forward for the first down.
After seeing only two offensive snaps last week, Harry played 40 snaps in the win over the Bengals, playing multiple spots (X, slot, and Z) throughout the game.
Patriots OC Josh McDaniels stayed true to his word, involving Harry in multiple ways, including end arounds, and the rookie was the most dangerous player on the New England offense.
4. Patriots Offensive Line Has Up and Down Performance
The Bengals sacked Brady twice and hit the Pats QB eight times in what looked like an ugly day in pass protection, and it certainly was at times.
However, based on the initial review, Brady was only under pressure an acceptable 29.4 percent of his drop-backs, and the Pats OL got better in the second half.
Along with a relatively low pressure rate, the Pats offensive line also paved the way for a productive afternoon on the ground, averaging 5.5 yards per rush. Let’s start with the bad stuff in pass protection.
One of the main culprits of the Pats issues in pass pro was tight end Matt LaCosse. On his four pass-blocking snaps, LaCosse allowed two quarterback hits and a hurry.
Here on third down, the Patriots are max protecting with seven blockers in to keep the rush away from Brady, but they leave LaCosse one-on-one with pass rusher Carl Lawson, and Lawson wins easily. There’s also pressure off the right side, and the pocket collapses on Brady.
Later in the half, right tackle Marcus Cannon fails to pick up a stunt, and Sam Hubbard brings Brady down for a sack.
There were some bad moments, but it wasn’t all bad and left tackle Isaiah Wynn had a clean sheet (you see him spin to pick up his side of the stunt above).
Wynn also helped open holes for the running backs. On this 12-yard run by Michel, the Pats left tackle carries out a perfect combination block, bumping the tackle on the line before climbing to the linebacker at the second level. Right guard Shaq Mason pulls in the one-back power scheme, and Michel follows right behind.
To put the game away, the Pats ran one-back power once again with Mason as the lead blocker, cleaning out the hole for Rex Burkhead. Burkhead makes the safety miss and puts the game on ice.
Rex Burkhead called Shaq Mason “one of the most talented, athletic lineman I’ve ever played with” after the win.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) December 15, 2019
After the win, Burkhead went into detail on what makes Mason a great puller and lead blocker for the running backs.
The Pats OL made some great blocks in the screen game as well, cleaning things up after a rocky start.
5. Josh McDaniels Listens to All of Our Ideas
In my game plan on Friday, I outlined several ways in which Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels could do a better job. Get N’Keal Harry involved in comfy situations, throw more screens to the back to soften the pass rush, and use Julian Edelman as a decoy were a few of my ideas. Well, the Pats OC delivered on Sunday.
With Harry, we saw the timing routes replaced with either end zone box-out chances or end arounds where he becomes an instant freight train as a ball carrier.
But maybe most importantly, the screen game returned as a strength of the offense.
On James White’s opening drive score, the Patriots ran a misdirection screen where Brady fakes a jet sweep to Edelman as White is leaking out into the flat. The convoy pulls out in front of White, who gets excellent blocks from Joe Thuney and Ted Karras to start his momentum, and the Pats running back punches it in for the touchdown.
As the offense struggles, McDaniels is rightfully shouldering some of the blame in the public eye, but his game plan on Sunday was exactly what the doctor ordered.
6. Bengals’ Joe Mixon Runs All Over Pats Defense in First Quarter
In the first quarter, Bengals running back Joe Mixon tallied 72 rushing yards on ten carries, that’s the bad news. The good news? Mixon only had 64 yards on the ground on 15 attempts the rest of the game.
The issue for the Patriots defense with Mixon early on was simple; they couldn’t tackle. It wasn’t anything fancy, and it wasn’t anything schematic either. Pats defenders had Mixon dead-to-rights in the backfield on multiple occasions, and he somehow danced out of those tackle attempts for big gains.
As the game wore on, the Pats, led by linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley and nose tackle Danny Shelton, corralled Mixon with better play at the line of scrimmage and tackling technique.
“He probably is the best back in the league,” Belichick said of Mixon. “He runs so hard. He’s so hard to tackle.”
The third-year tailback for the Bengals got the better of the Patriots defense on Sunday, and if opponents can keep games close against New England, it’s a bit of a concern.
7. Julian Edelman Guts Through Multiple Injuries, Plays 41 of 63 Snaps
The reigning Super Bowl MVP is hurt, maybe even injured, nursing a tendon issue in his knee and a bum shoulder that’s structurally intact but extremely painful. From this perspective, Edelman played this game at, generously, 50 percent of his usual self. He couldn’t cut, his typical explosiveness of the line wasn’t there, and he only caught two passes for nine yards on five targets.
“I think everyone is banged up. It’s Week 15. It’s a tough sport, it’s a grind. I’m sure everyone has some sort of injury,” Edelman said in the postgame locker room.
We hear about athletes playing through injury weekly in football, but given the state of the offense, Edelman’s importance cannot be overstated. The Pats need him out there, and even if it’s just as a decoy like on Sunday, he still has immense value on the field.
8. Special Teams Dynamite Action Example No. Ten Thousand
How many times have we included something about the kicking game in a “ten things” column this season? Feels like every week.
This week, let’s highlight two great plays by two potential All-Pro candidates as kick coverage specialists, Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel.
With Slater, it was his heads-up play to punch the ball loose from Bengals punt returner Alex Erickson that led directly to three points for the Patriots. It was a bang-bang play, but Slater appears to get his hand in there after Erickson fields the punt to get the ball out and set the Pats offense up on the Cincy 23-yard line.
As for Bethel, he flashed some serious speed to come across the field and make a tackle on Bengals return man Darius Phillips at inside the 15.
The Patriots continue to get exceptional production out of their special teams coverage units, making it a clear strength as they try to win the field position battle each week.
9. Patriots Have Some Fun With Formations
The Patriots played most of the game out of their 11-personnel grouping (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB), but Josh McDaniels also sprinkled in some unique formations. The Pats unveiled a few different 21-groupings, both with fullback Elandon Roberts and two running backs in the backfield. To close out the game, New England put a supersized package on the field with six offensive linemen, Roberts at fullback, and two tight ends along with Burkhead. The Patriots continue to put as much on tape as possible before the playoffs with everything from a spread-it-out four-receiver attack to the jumbo closeout package.
10. Play of the Game: Stephon Gilmore’s Pick Six
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) December 15, 2019
So good, let’s watch it twice. This time, we’ll let the man himself explain what he saw as the play developed. He also broke down his first interception for me as well.