By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Weird game. Weeeeeeiiirrrrdddd game.
That assessment applies to the sport of football in general, but as it relates to our current discussion here in this space, it applies to the Patriots’ grinding win over the Chargers at home on Sunday.
Sitting at Gillette on a dreary late October afternoon, the game developed the distinct feel of one that might be difficult to remember five years from now. The Patriots played the Chargers in 2017? Did anything noteworthy happen? Not really? No? OK.
They happen from time time, largely lifeless contests where the visiting team just lacks the energy necessary to compete with the Patriots in Foxboro. And though the Chargers made a late push to get some juices flowing in the final minute, this felt like one of those games.
The Patriots did a lot well, to be sure. Their offense was efficient, their defense was tough on third down, their kick and punt coverage was excellent, and unlike their opponent, they avoided committing too many ill-timed and costly penalties. And so, they got the win, improved to 6-2, and feel pretty swell about themselves heading into the long, long 14-day gap without a football game.
We may not remember it as an all-time great game in Patriots lore, but we sure as heck are going to dissect it as much as we can right here in the leftover thoughts from their 21-13 win over the Chargers.
–I want to talk for a moment about James White. At 5-foot-9 and about 200 pounds, he’s not the world’s biggest back. But he’s probably tougher than he gets credit for being. It was evident early on Sunday, when he absorbed a mammoth hit from Tre Boston on a third-down reception:
White lost his helmet and struggled a bit to grab the football to toss to the official:
And then calmly made his way to the sideline:
From afar, it looked like White might need some time to himself after taking a hit like that. But on the very next drive, on a third-and-11, Tom Brady dumped a pass to White in the left flat. White had one man to beat in the open field, and boy did he ever:
That play went for 27 yards.
And then later in the third quarter, on a third-and-2 at the Chargers’ 34-yard line, Brady had to throw off his back foot on a pass that traveled about 20 yards in the air. It felt like the ball was in the air for an hour, but White kept his focus on the ball and hung on when Boston again walloped him in the back:
On those two drives when White picked up huge third-down conversions, the Patriots scored a touchdown and a field goal. Neither play made highlight reels for any game recaps, but they were essential. That’s just winning football.
–This is just an observation, and it’s not new, but here goes: Philip Rivers throws a football with similar mechanics to the way a tighty-whitey-wearing Jack Black throws his pee cup against the wall in the movie “Orange County.” I’m sorry if you disagree, but that’s just my politics.
–OK, OK, OK, if you read this story regularly, then you know my fondness for the “Zero Humans” defense that teams inexplicably employ often in Foxboro. And when it comes to forgetting to cover the wooly mammoth that is Bob Gronkowski, it’s a defensive breakdown that defies explanation.
So, yes, when Gronkowski caught this touchdown, the “Zero Humans” defense was technically in effect:
HOWEVER! I want to point something out here.
Rob Gronkowski is the greatest force in the NFL. He’s unstoppable. He’s a freak. He has 74 touchdowns in 95 games. He’s very good at football!
Dwayne Allen? Well, he was pretty good at football prior to this year. But through eight games, he has zero catches with the Patriots — coincidentally, the same number of humans covering Gronkowski on the touchdown.
And why do I mention Allen? Because on the touchdown to Gronkowski, the Chargers did a GREAT job of covering Dwayne Allen:
Hey, as the old saying goes, Just make sure Dwayne Allen doesn’t beat you, and if Gronkowski happens to catch a wide open touchdown, you tip your cap.
Joking aside this really is maddening. It’s akin to when defenses somehow failed to cover Mike Vrabel, when literally the only thing he ever did on offense was run out routes and catch touchdowns. Defenses still failed to cover him. Same with Gronkowski.
Maybe some day. Maybe.
–The Chargers later had EXPERT coverage on Allen, who was running a wheel route. It was excellent coverage. Way to go. The problem is that the Chargers didn’t cover Rex Burkhead, who actually does catch passes for the Patriots.
Burkhead turned it into a 12-yard catch-and-run. On the surface, this may seem bad for the Chargers’ defense. But you might have noticed that it wasn’t a 25-yard catch for Allen. You see? Pretty good play then.
–Burkhead, by the way, caught seven passes for 68 yards. It was a career high in both departments. Previously, his high single game-high for catches was four, and for yards it was 41. Just another case of Bill Belichick assessing someone’s skill from afar, noting the player isn’t being used correctly, and fitting him in to the system. Belichick obviously doesn’t bat 1.000 — oh, hey, Dwayne Allen — but some of the less-heralded fits he finds are pretty remarkable. Kyle Van Noy and Chris Hogan — two prominent players on Sunday — fit the bill, too.
–Oh, and speaking of Zero Human defense, I don’t quite understand the strategy of just gifting nine yards to the Patriots to allow them to get out trouble in their own end of the field:
I’m no defensive coordinator though, so what do I know?
–In keeping with tradition, the Patriots’ cheerleaders wore Halloween costumes for the game. And I’m pretty sure it was the first time I’ve ever seen anybody go with the Sexy Pinocchio costume.
You don’t see that one too often. She must have shopped at the Girls’s Costume Warehouse.
–It was really strange on the flea flicker when Brady didn’t see Hogan running wide open and instead opted to try to squeeze a deep ball through double coverage to Brandin Cooks.
We know that Brady’s hit Hogan on that play before, so it was odd that it wouldn’t be Brady’s first look. Hogan had about eight yards of separation and was running free. Would have been an easy touchdown.
–You might have wondered: ‘How in the world did Rayshawn Jenkins end up getting in the face of Matthew Slater, the nicest man in sports?’
Well, the answer was perfect: It’s because Slater was clapping to celebrate a flag. Some guys talk trash. Matthew Slater claps.
–Do you want to know what I consider to be the best play of the game? Sure you do. It came with 1:19 left in the first half. The Patriots had a first-and-10 from the Charger’s 45-yard line. Joey Bosa’s rush prompted Brady to slide up in the pocket, which was clean, but Brady had no open receivers. Brady gave a subtle little pump fake, drawing two defensive linemen to leap in the air:
Brady then looked back over his shoulder to get a read on where Bosa was ….
… before calmly slipping back in the pocket to account for Bosa’s over-aggressive rush back up the field:
Brady collected himself, found James White in man coverage with linebacker Hayes Pullard, and pointed for his running back to run up field:
Brady set himself and delivered the most perfect pass you could imagine. White caught it, in stride, in his bread basket, and turned it into a 25-yard reception.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: If you want to understand how Brady is so much better than everyone else, it all comes back to pocket awareness and pocket mobility. In that realm, he is the king. His arm is also not bad.
–OK, because you’re dying to know what the second-best play of the game was, I’ll tell you. This one was simpler. Brady just dropped a magnificent 13-yard rainbow right over a defender and into the arms of Gronkowski:
That’s just fun. Sometimes football is fun.
Oh, also Gronkowski ripped through a defensive hold on that play. He’s big and he’s strong.
–Speaking of fun:
–I’ll grant you that the pass to Gronkowski was “uncatchable,” but you’ve just got to love a good case of NFL denial from a defensive back:
What?! What’d I do? I mean, aside from ride the guy all the way up the field and grab him twice and yank his neck twice? Is that suddenly illegal now?
–Tom Brady has talked about protecting himself before. But, uh, this isn’t what you’re looking for from your quarterback:
Enduring that hit just for a whopping zero-yard run? Bad, Tom. Bad.
–Imagine, if you will, a world where a real live NFL player — a six-year veteran and fourth-round draft pick to boot — can get his hands on a punt right here on the 11-yard line and have the play result in a safety:
–David Harris took 21 defensive snaps, up from his usual number of one or zero, and he looked fine as he was sent to rush the passer a number of times. He certainly introduced himself to Melvin Gordon:
The best part was that after the game, Harris was just kind of upset, saying, “I was just mad I tripped over the running back.”
–Speaking of getting trucked, Lawrence Guy ended up bulldozing long snapper Mike Windt on the first-quarter missed field goal:
Guy celebrated as if he got a finger on the kick, which just accentuates an incredible day for special teams. Between the kick coverage, the punt coverage and what might have been a field goal block, it was clear which team is better-coached in all three phases.
Granted, a pair of missed 43-yard field goals isn’t ideal at all. But Gostkowski explained his misses in detail, and he believed only one of them came as a result of a bad stroke.
Special teams, though. It’s for real.
–On that note, a message to all NFL teams: STOP TRYING TO TAKE KICKOFFS OUT OF THE END ZONE AGAINST THE PATRIOTS. Just stop. Good golly, Miss Molly, is it ever getting frustrating watching these guys get swallowed up at their own 18-yard line time after time after time. Just don’t do it! Don’t. Do. It.
What is utterly bananas — UTTERLY BANANAS — is that opponents have attempted to return 29 kicks against the Patriots. That’s by far the most in the NFL, followed by Minnesota (23), the Chargers (21) and then four teams at 17. And opponents have averaged just 19.2 yards on those returns.
A lot of that has to do with great coverage, but also give credit to Gostkowski. Ever since the touchback moved to the 25-yard line, he’s mastered the art of booming those kicks high and having them drop right at or near the goal line. It forces opponents to either return from their own 1- or 2-yard line, or make a choice from a yard or two deep in the end zone.
It may not be the most significant aspect of the sport, but every little bit helps. And the Patriots are the best when it comes to this.
–If the Chargers had maybe not been complete goofballs, they probably would have won. By goofballs, I mean …
–Travis Benjamin running backward into his own end zone after muffing a punt and getting tackled for a safety — the first such goof in the NFL since 2003.
–Joey Bosa jumping offside for a neutral zone infraction on a third-and-5 to set up a third-and-short which allowed the Patriots two extra minutes off the clock.
–Travis Benjamin choosing to not go out of bounds when he had the opportunity with 57 seconds left in the game, costing L.A. 16 crucial seconds on their comeback attempt.
Just your classic goofery right there, folks.