COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- After the first month of the season, about the only thing that made sense for the Patriots was the play of Tom Brady. The rest of the team? Safe to say it looked nothing like this uber-squad that had some (yes, me included) talking about the potential for an undefeated season. The Pats were 2-2 and had lost -- gasp -- a pair of home games, giving up 42 to the Chiefs and 33 to the Panthers. What in the name of Rod Rust was going on?
Flash forward to a half-dozen weeks later. The Pats may not be winning games exactly in the manner we expected, but they’re getting there. They’ve now ripped off five in a row and are tied with the Steelers for the best record in the AFC. I’ve seen Pittsburgh play; the Pats are better, at least in the here and now.
How did this team transform itself from a disappointment to the best team in the conference? Let me count the ways . . .
After that Carolina debacle, Devin McCourty called the defense’s play “embarrassing.” Duron Harmon said of the team's defensive scheme: “We can’t play no more simpler than that.” That’s a Code Red for Pats players. They were visibly hurt by what had transpired over the first month of the season.
So what’s changed? A call to give more of yourself, whether it be in the film room, the meeting room, the weight room or the practice field. The secondary in particular, but the defense as a whole, demanded more accountability and the results have been more commensurate with what was expected, not just by fans and media but, more importantly, by the players themselves. You say as professionals, why shouldn’t this be the norm? I agree, but look around the league. Did you see Janoris Jenkins turtle in Sunday’s Giants/49ers game? Or the Browns safety who decided not to move a single step during the a running play in the red zone? When adversity strikes, some teams/players don’t know how to handle it. This one does.
COMMITMENT TO THE RUN GAME
Tom Brady can lift all boats, or his team in this case. Even at the age of 40, he’s one of just a handful of quarterbacks that no situation, no amount of adversity, seems too great to overcome. Lose your best receiver? That sucks, but we’ll figure it out. Get smashed to smithereens over the first four games and hurt your non-throwing shoulder? Not ideal, but I’ll be there next week . . . and the week after that and so on. Find yourself with just three healthy receivers for a big game in Denver, including one who’s barely made an impact during the first half of the season? Brady will just have the best statistical game at Mile High EVER. Yes, the old man is playing like a young kid with all the advanced degrees. “I have the answers to the test.”
However, Brady’s still standing upright -- and that shoulder is healing -- because of a commitment the Patriots made to the run game following that loss to Carolina. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels knew he was putting his QB in harm’s way too often. So the Pats magic number of 25 or more rushes became the target weekly. Only once have they failed to get there since:
|at Tampa Bay||23||113|
|at N.Y. Jets||25||118|
The line play has improved dramatically over the win streak and the guys up front have said having more of a 50/50 run-pass ratio allows them to get into more of an attack mentality. Instead of always taking your first step back and bracing for a hit, they can instead deliver. It helps to wear out those elite pass rushers. Ask Von Miller. Or Joey Bosa. Or Melvin Ingram. Or Vic Beasley. Should I continue?
Always one of the premier groupings in the entire league, the Pats got off to a rocky start during that first month. They were without Matthew Slater, one of the best gunners in the game, and the rest of the unit missed his energy and attention to detail. You want to talk about accountability? No one on special teams wants to disappoint Slater.
But Slater's back and guess what? The Pats special teams have been riding high. Versus the Chargers prior to the bye, the Pats nailed punt returner Travis Benjamin for a safety, got a 71-yard kick return from Dion Lewis and continually pinned L.A. inside its own 20 on kickoffs. Hard to top that, right?
Sunday night against the Broncos, Jon Jones forced a fumble on a punt return in the opening quarter, a fumble that was recovered by Jacob Hollister and led to a touchdown. Dion Lewis returned a kickoff 103 yards for a score. Rex Burkhead blocked a punt, leading to more points, and the Pats retained possession of the ball when they caught the Broncos with 12 men on the field during a punt return. 24 points -- directly or indirectly -- came because of how well the special teams played.
Bill Belichick always stresses playing complementary football and three phases of the game. The Pats aren’t just winning on special teams, they're crushing teams’ souls.
MATT PATRICIA DOING MORE WITH LESS
This might be the Pats’ defensive coordinator’s best job yet. His front seven is littered with subs, castoffs and players not in their prime, past their prime or just straight underperforming. Yet since losing to Carolina, the Pats defense has held opponents to 17 points or less in five straight games. How is that possible? Well, for starters, that pesky “bend but don’t break” mentality has come back into focus. The Pats are giving up yards -- Denver marched it up and down the field repeatedly Sunday night -- but are tightening up in or near the red area and forcing field goals. Patricia won’t celebrate that -- he wants no yards and no points -- but deep down, the DC is pleased with his team’s execution when their backs are up against the end zone.
Patricia has also tabbed Kyle Van Noy to be his new Dont’a Hightower. With Hightower, the lynchpin of the front seven, down and out for the year, the Pats have asked Van Noy to do more than ever. He’s wearing the green dot and lines up inside, outside, anywhere they feel his speed and improved intelligence can help. It’s not perfect. Few linebackers have the physical skill set Hightower does. But Van Noy has become a foundational piece for a defense that needed the concrete to harden quickly after that putrid first month.
THEIR COACH IS SMARTER THAN YOURS
Bill Belichick didn’t panic when the Pats were 2-2. He went on some interesting media rants about the stupidity of predicting perfection to dispelling the notion that any team should be as good in September or October as it was the previous January or February. (Note to Bill: I have no idea who said that. Seemed like a strawman to me . . . ) Those moments made you reach deep for some sort of inner meaning. I took it as Belichick trying to shift the focus off his team and onto himself, even if it carried the conversation for just a day or two.
Meanwhile, the coaching staff just kept pushing buttons, trying to find the right fits for some of their newer players. I’d say they’ve accomplished that. Stephon Gilmore is no longer miscast as a zone corner. He’s playing a lot of man and playing it well (ask Mike Evans and Demaryius Thomas). Rex Burkhead is being featured more as both a runner and receiver. Dion Lewis is now getting carries that previously belonged to Mike Gillislee. We’re seeing more of fullback James Develin and that toughness that he brings. Devin McCourty has found himself playing closer to the line of scrimmage than ever before and had really been as sound a tackler as you’ll see. Hell, the staff has even gotten something out of Jordan Richards and Johnson Bademosi defensively.
Belichick also told Alan Branch to stay home for that Tampa game and didn’t lose the player. He reduced Malcolm Butler’s snaps in Week 2 versus the Saints, and while the corner hasn’t played up to his 2016 level, he too didn’t stray off the reservation. Noted distraction Martellus Bennett, who has left previous stops in Dallas, New York, Chicago and Green Bay with bridges burning, returned this past week and caught three passes in limited duty and said after that Belichick just knows how to talk to him. Yep, the man knows how to coach schemes and personalities better than anyone does it now and maybe anyone has done it ever.