EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It just so happened that Ben Watson's first opportunity to play in a game this season came on a Monday night. That meant a lot of down time during the day to sit around and think about things.
Maybe too much.
"Today I had to sit around like all day and have jitters all day so that was even worse," Watson said. "I haven’t played a full game since last season. Definitely was a little bit of jitters."
Watson seemed a little off when he was targeted for the first time since the 2018 season. Running an out-route on the fifth snap of the game, Watson was late to turn to Tom Brady's throw. The football ended up catching Watson square in the face mask as he looked for the pass, eventually falling incomplete, making it one of the few true Patriots follies of the night during their 33-0 drubbing of the Jets.
There weren't many of those thereafter, and Watson quickly redeemed himself, converting on a third-and-five throw later in the drive. Three plays later, running back Sony Michel was in the end zone thanks to a key block on the edge by the 38-year-old tight end.
Watson's contributions ended up going well beyond his team's first drive, as he played 62 total snaps and caught three passes for 18 yards. But it was during that methodical 16-play scoring drive to start the game that Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick let the world know that they still have the ability to run a two-tight end offense, long known as their "Detroit" package.
(Why "Detroit?" The Lions had two tight ends in the mid-1970s, Charlie Sanders and David Hill, who were tough covers. The Lions used both together as weapons, upsetting Chuck Fairbanks' Patriots in Week 5 of 1976, 30-10. An assistant on that Lions staff? Belichick. According to Ian O'Connor's book, "Belichick: The Making of the Greatest Football Coach of All Time," it was Belichick who urged his team to try two tight end sets that week. Four years later, as an assistant in New England, Bill Parcells learned to call two tight end sets "Detroit." The name stuck as Parcells' coaching tree branched out to include the likes of Charlie Weis, Al Groh . . . and, of course, Belichick.)
The Patriots ended up using a 12-personnel look (one back, two tight ends) on the first snap of the game and seven times in all on the game's first drive, picking up 21 yards on six carries, including a three-yard Michel touchdown.
Newly-acquired tight end Eric Tomlinson played 38 snaps, impressing teammates with his ability to adjust to a new offense as he played both in-line and as a fullback. Watson, meanwhile, was used all over the formation as an in-line player, a fullback and detached from the formation in the slot.
Coming into the Jets game, the Patriots had run just 18 snaps of "12," according to Sharp Football Stats. On Monday, they posted nearly half that total during the opening drive alone.
"Both Eric and Ben did a real good job this week of catching up, not only from an assignment standpoint but getting extra reps on the practice field, and getting timing and so forth, in both the running game and the passing game," Belichick said after the game.
"I thought they both competed well. It’s good to be able to put some bigger people on the field and not being four and three wides on every single play. So we had some productive plays from that. Hopefully, we can build on that and balance off our different personnel groupings a little bit more than we have in the past couple of games."
The Patriots were limited to one personnel grouping in Week 6 for the entirety of the second half thanks to the injuries they dealt with at both fullback and tight end. It was the first time that'd happened in 20 years, Tom Brady said after the game.
Not the case against the Jets. Using their "12" package early made sense since Adam Gase's club had allowed 9.7 yards per pass attempt to that grouping coming into Week 7, as well as a 115.5 quarterback rating, per Sharp.
Without Matt LaCosse (knee) and Ryan Izzo (concussion), it looked like the Patriots might be forced to roll with 11-personnel groupings (one back, one tight end) for much of the game at MetLife Stadium. But both Watson and Tomlinson filled in effectively. The Patriots also used two-back sets, and they utilized "23" groupings (two backs, three tight ends) at the goal line when they had to grind out plays in short-yardage.
Watson and Tomlinson factored into them all.
"It's awesome. Coming in this week, one week of preparation and then coming in and playing a lot of plays is really impressive," James White said of Watson and Tomlinson. "Ben did great. Eric did great. I say they'll be able to continue to build on that. It's not easy just coming in in one week and going out there to play a lot of plays so hats off to them two."
It wasn't all positive for the Patriots offense. They averaged only 2.2 yards per carry as a team. Brady averaged just 5.5 yards per pass attempt. On their last nine drives, they scored one touchdown, punted seven times and were intercepted once.
But having a couple of tight ends ready to go as part of the attack helped the Patriots show a little diversity in Jersey, and it forced the Jets to stay on their toes to try to keep up with the personnel changes called by McDaniels.
Having Watson back in the mix, in particular, was something that his teammates appreciated.
"Awesome, man," Julian Edelman said of Watson's night. "He went in there and he played like the pro that he is. He's a veteran player. He knows what we have to do. It's awesome having him out there and having a guy who's got some stripes."
He also has a few catches and more than a few snaps to his name this season after beating the Jets. To think it was only a couple of weeks ago that the Patriots didn't have a roster spot for Watson following his four-game suspension.
How long his spot remains his is yet to be seen, but on Monday he was a key piece in helping the Patriots get their offense established.
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