By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Two weeks ago in Detroit, the Patriots’ offense bottomed out. Josh McDaniels’ game plan looked to be basic, the offensive line couldn’t run block to save its life, receivers weren’t getting an inch of separation, and Tom Brady lacked any answers.
The Patriots gained just 209 total yards that night and scored 10 points against a Lions defense that has given up, on average, 370 yards and 35 points in each of its other three games played.
Clearly, a lot needed to change. Just 11 days later, it’s clear that much has.
That effort has been multi-faceted. In the two games since, McDaniels has reinstalled some creativity to the playbook, with play calls better suited for the personnel on the field. The offensive line — with the benefit of playing at home — helped pave the way for 272 yards on 63 carries over two weeks. Brady’s been more confident; he’s stood in the pocket better than he did in the Week 2 loss in Jacksonville, and he’s yet to throw up any glorified punts like he did in Detroit.
And, of course, the addition of Josh Gordon and the seamless re-integration of Julian Edelman seems to have helped a great deal.
For Gordon, the production has been there for two games, and Edelman looked mostly like his normal self in his first real game action since the Super Bowl vs. Atlanta. (Save for the drop, of course.)
But even aside from the numbers and the receptions, I found the impact of these two players most evident just in the formations the Patriots ran all night long against the Colts. The Patriots spread out five players from sideline to sideline, often without a back in the backfield, leaving Brady all alone to pick apart a vulnerable defense.
Here’s one example: Chris Hogan up top, with James White and Rob Gronkowski in the left slot. Edelman in the right slot, with Gordon lined up wide right:
As I said in my postgame story, running this formation so often was borderline disrespectful. (Credit to McDaniels for finding a new, inventive way of disrespecting the Colts organization.) It’s essentially an announcement, into a megaphone: “You don’t have enough defenders to cover these guys.” And it worked.
It’s the same ferocious offensive approach that allowed the Patriots to score a record number of points back in 2007. While the personnel this year may not match the ’07 squad, but that’s less important than the fact that the Patriots now have the personnel to run this type of offense. They could not have said the same two weeks ago, when they simply did not have the personnel. (Phillip Dorsett wasn’t even on the field for that play, which went for an easy gain of five to White.)
With so many options, the game was too easy for Brady. Literally. Look at this information:
That’s preposterous. It should never happen in an NFL game. Yet it did.
Why even put a defense on the field if you’re going to leave at least one receiver wide open on 82 percent of snaps? Eighty-two percent!
While we need not turn a dominant showing against the Colts into anything more than it was (gollllllllly, the Colts are bad), we can at least see what this Patriots offense can be capable of now that the extended preseason, aka Weeks 1-4, are now over.
Let’s go ahead and tackle some sleep-deprived leftover thoughts from the Patriots’ 38-24 win over the Colts on Thursday Night Football.
–Edelman’s return was a big story of the night, as was his brutal first-quarter drop. While it was an impressive performance overall, I found his bulldozing power to be most impressive. Here he is getting contacted at the 5-yard line, taking a defender on his back and driving straight through the chest of cornerback Pierre Desir:
The knee looked quite all right there. And Edelman looked pretty good. Powerful stuff.
–I do regret not writing a story a couple of weeks ago when it dawned on me that, duh, of course Bill Belichick would be using Edelman to return punts upon his return to action. While some of us fraidy cats on the outside worry about things like risk and injury and wear and tear and all of that, Belichick doesn’t really. If you can return punts, you’re going to return punts. Kind of a simple equation.
And, when you have one of the best punt returners in the history of the NFL at your disposal, you’ll probably use him.
(That’s not hyperbole, either. Edelman entered Thursday night tied with Devin Hester and Mack Herron with the eighth-best yards per return average at 11.7. He dropped down to a tie for 10th, though, when his average dropped by .1 yards.)
–The Colts had some issues on both sides of the ball on Thursday:
–Hey, remember back in the preseason, when we all had Jason McCourty on the roster bubble, as Belichick tried him out at safety? ‘What an ominous sign for his roster security!‘ we all mused. Welllllllll. Jason McCourty made the roster and has been rock solid opposite Stephon Gilmore during Eric Rowe’s absence. He’s been a solid, professional cornerback, and he was far and away the better McCourty twin on the field on Thursday.
Jason McCourty was in coverage on consecutive passes to the end zone in the first quarter (first on Eric Ebron, then on Zach Pascal) and gave Andrew Luck absolutely nowhere to throw the football. So Luck threw both out of bounds, forcing the Colts to settle for a field goal (which Adam Vinatieri missed).
–Jason McCourty also adds some fresh perspective to simply winning football games that many Patriots don’t have. Having just come from the 0-16 Browns, and having been on the Titans for a 5-27 stretch over two seasons, Jason McCourty hasn’t exactly had the same NFL experience as his twin brother, Devin. And that, apparently, shows after some of these ho-hum wins for the Patriots
“We got this guy over there, Jason, always reminding us when we win, how happy he is. So, he makes sure that no one can kind of take this for granted,” Devin said. “He was yelling and screaming coming in, so he’s been a positive guy to have in our locker room.”
When the Patriots posted footage from inside their locker room, Devin was proven to have been telling the truth, as Jason was shown shouting in a quiet locker room: “YEAH I’M EXCITED! I DID A LOT OF LOSING LAST YEAR! THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT!”
–Devin McCourty had some real issues in coverage on Ebron. When these two teams meet again in the AFC Championship Game, expect Brian Flores to mix it up in the secondary when Ebron’s on the field.
–McCourty also had a pretty funny line when asked what he’s going to do on his rare weekend off from work.
“Duron’s KILLING me with a baby shower on Saturday,” he said of his fellow safety, Duron Harmon. “Other than that, we’re gonna try to do some stuff with the kids, have a little fun. Let me sleep in, hopefully.”
Pros — they’re just like us!
–There are ferocious jukes and then there are ferocious jukes. What James White did to Clayton Geathers? That, my friends, was a ferrrrrrrocious juke.
Mercy. That fella slipped right off the screen there. A grisly scene.
–James White, by the way? He leads the Patriots in targets (44), receptions (32), and receiving touchdowns (4). That’s 13 more targets than anyone else, nine receptions more than anyone else, and two touchdowns more than anyone else. In his first year as a captain, he has clearly elevated his game.
–The thing with Edelman is he helps in terms of scheme and play calls, but he also helps in a way that can’t be quantified. If you want to know what Edelman brings to the field, look no further than his 10-yard punt return that didn’t even count (thanks to a J.C. Jackson penalty).
Who is Julian Edelman? He’s the guy who gets tackled on a punt return, then saunters toward the opposing sideline and just stares:
He’s really just looking for a taker. And when he gets that opponent to bite, he wins the yap-fest. In this instance, it was Lenzy Pipkins (aka the man with the GREATEST Lord Of The Rings-sounding name in the NFL, aka one of the men who posed for a fake picture while down by 14 points in the second half) who took the bait.
Lenzy Pipkins (Lenzy Pipkins!!!!) got in Edelman’s face, and Edelman of course returned fire.
We can only imagine what he said. But playing against Edelman has just got to be exhausting.
–In today’s edition of “NFL Rules Aren’t Good,” the Colts were penalized 15 yards because a stray hand hit Tom Brady in the helmet. This has been a rule for a while, but it generally requires “forcible” contact nowadays. In any event, it was called.
It just so happened to have been called on a play where a completely defenseless receiver took a helmet-to-helmet shot upon catching the football on the right hash marks. That contact did not draw a penalty, because the receiver in question was a big strong man named Rob Gronkowski.
The rules for defenseless receivers don’t apply when you are a big strong man.
–Oh, also, another reminder that the “lowering the helmet rule” was officially just a preseason mirage:
It’s fine that it’s not, but it would just be nice if the NFL admitted that the rule got thrown in the fire after it generated enough of a PR boost of “NFL CARES ABOUT PROTECTING PLAYERS” in the preseason. That’s all.
–Speaking of penalties, boy oh boy, buddy boy, do I know an NFL general manager who wanted to see more of them called on the Patriots on Thursday night. Tell you what, this NFL general manager was hooting and hollering on what felt like every snap, calling for offensive holding on the Patriots, or illegal defensive contact on the Patriots. This NFL general manager somehow felt the officials were more to blame for the proceedings, and not his own roster building.
Woo, doggy. This NFL general manager was running hot on Thursday night!
–Sony Michel had another great night, with 98 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. Once again, the offensive line blocked for him, but he also showed off some more first-round skills.
Like, for example, his lowering of the shoulder into Geathers for an extra few yards by the goal line:
He also showed off some one-step quickness with after planting and cutting when he found a little bit of a cutback lane for a 15-yard gain up the gut.
Each week he seems to be building upon his NFL game. He, like the rest of the offense, has come long way in a span of 11 days.
–Seemingly during every single stoppage of play, a press box announcement was made to give an update on an injured Colts player. Thursday night football, baby!
–Stats are funny. Brady got tagged with two interceptions on Thursday, but both obviously bounced off the arms of receivers. Chris Hogan’s flub was entirely the fault of Hogan, while at least Gronk has the excuse of having a safety come over and deliver a hit just as the ball was secured.
But, regardless, stats are stats, and the stats show that Brady threw two picks on Thursday night. Brady threw two picks in the entirety of his 2016 season, which was 12 games. Remebering back to 2010, when Brady threw four picks all year and went on a ridiculous streak of over 300 passes without throwing a pick. I distinctly remember at least two passes clanging off linebackers’ chests but falling to the turf. Those weren’t picks, but these were.
Edelman’s miracle catch in Super Bowl LI? That was pretty interception-y.
For as much as Brady’s stats took a hit on Thursday night in the interception department, these things have a way of balancing out over time.
–Speaking of stats, that fourth quarter is why I’ll never play fantasy football. I guess you’re some big football genius if you had Luck and Ebron on your team, knowing they’d be lighting it up in garbage time.
–Facing Tom Brady is difficult, obviously. It can be a real pain in the buns for defensive players. While that’s true for many reasons, the quarterback’s ability to hold on to the ball until the very last moment before not only releasing the ball but completing a pass has to rank among the biggest.
It was on display midway through the third quarter. Jihad Ward muscled his way through Joe Thuney and closed in on Brady. Ward thought he had a sack. He wrapped up the quarterback.
Brady kept his eyes downfield, and without the use of his legs, delivered a strike to Gronkowski for a gain of 15 yards.
That has just got to be demoralizing. You get to the quarterback. You take him down. He still guts you.
Ward’s reaction? It was perfect.
(That’s not pliability at play there, by the way. That’s some good old-fashioned old man strength.)
–Also demoralizing is when it requires this many humans to take down Rob Gronkowski:
–They added a new pregame light show for the night games at Gillette. It was real spooky (perhaps an homage to Spooky World, which used to exist around those parts). It got all dark. Some lights were like, flashing, maybe, a little bit. Kind of eerie. In any event, if you’re going to one of the 85 night games this season, make sure you’re in your seat for the team’s emergence from the inflatable helmet. If you like light shows, that is.
–Sometimes people say “you could call a hold on every single snap in the NFL.” That isn’t true. However, you could have called a hold on this snap:
Not sure how you could possibly have missed that. Unless you believed Trey Flowers just wanted to test out his ninja rolls. Alas. The aforementioned NFL general manager did not offer any loud commentary about the officiating on that play.
–Shawn Hochuli was the referee, and we can safely say “like father, like son.” Late in an interminable game filled with injuries and replay reviews, Hochuli addressed the crowd: “Two-minute warning. One-minute administrative timeout. Two minutes.”
Thanks for the detail, Shawn. Would have been lost without it. (P.S. — Abolish the two-minute warning!)
–Erik Swoope caught three passes for 44 yards and a touchdown for the Colts. Erik Swoope has now played in 20 football games. Ever.
That’s 20 games, not as a pro, not as a Colt. Twenty football games, ever.
He played college basketball at Miami, and the Colts decided to sign him as an undrafted free agent in 2014 to teach him how to play football. That’s pretty cool for him that he was able to have that kind of night on national TV. (It was perhaps not as cool for the Patriots to give up so much to someone who didn’t play football until 2014, but nevertheless.)
Swoope also made a catch late in the game that was ruled a touchdown, but replay review showed he was down just short of the goal line.
“It was a big deal. It’s the second one of my life,” Swoope said postgame. “It possibly could have been my third, so this is big I can celebrate with my family, and my lady, and hopefully build off this.”
Hey, folks. It’s a good football story, all right? All right.
–Tell you what, ladies and gentlemen. I’ll admit that I’m no NFL defensive coordinator. I’ll be upfront about the fact that I’m not a defensive backs coach. So that’s out there.
But I’ll also say that this:
Should absolutely never lead to this:
Not once. Not now. Not ever.
Just feels like bad football to me.
Alas, it counts. And the Patriots are 3-2 after winning on Thursday. Just like they were last year. Next Sunday night vs. the high-flying, absolutely-no-defense-having Kansas City Chiefs ought to be very interesting. To hold you over until then, here’s a quick photo gallery of Belichick celebrating the win:
Keep it together, Bill. There are kids watching.