The Patriots did on Sunday what objectively competent teams are supposed to do to bad teams. Eat them alive on the scoreboard.
Was it perfect for the Patriots? Not nearly. Was it good? The result certainly was. And there were plenty of "good" things done. But there’s a mess of things they need to improve.
Which is the same as it ever was. This is your annual reminder that this is the nature of September football. And I don’t know why our institutional memory of what it looks like gets wiped clean almost every year. How many times have Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels said in recent years that the first few weeks of the season are -- in many ways -- an extension of training camp? It takes real games against teams game-planning to exploit your weaknesses to truly figure out what the hell you have and how to best use it.
The days of two-a-days and four preseason games are long gone. Now, it’s down to three preseason games and the first week of camp being non-contact. Meanwhile, the 2021 Patriots had spottier-than-normal attendance at OTAs because of COVID. That reality and the fact the team has a completely retooled offense with a rookie quarterback under center only steepens the learning curve.
The point is, it’s going to take a while. It always does.
In 2017, the Patriots were a mess on defense for the first four weeks, starting the season 2-2. Then they flipped a switch in Week 5 when they started playing man coverage with newly-acquired Stephon Gilmore as the centerpiece. They finished 13-3.
In 2018, they started 1-2. They struggled to figure out who they wanted to be on offense all the way into December then said, “Screw it, we’re running the ball.” They won a Super Bowl nobody really saw coming.
In 2019, they fattened up for two months on a lot of teams just like the 2021 Jets and started 8-0. But they were paper tigers and Tom Brady knew it. The offensive line wasn’t good enough. Neither were the tight ends and wide receivers. They crumbled down the stretch.
Hell, the 2014 Patriots started 2-2 and the obits for Brady and the Patriots dynasty were submitted after a loss to Kansas City. They won three of the next four Super Bowls.
The point is, early-season trouble spots usually get fixed. Especially when there is personnel on hand to do it.
The Patriots won by 19 on Sunday. Which is exactly what they should have done against a team in its second game with a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback that was missing its starting left tackle. The "yeah buts …" included their run defense, their early failure to keep Mac Jones from getting either whacked or harried and their inability to finish drives with touchdowns.
But none of it should make you wring your hands raw. Unlike last year, they have the front-seven personnel to be better against the run. They have a right tackle -- Trent Brown -- who won’t be a traffic cone when he gets back from his calf injury. They have backs, tight ends and wide receivers who will -- as the weeks pass -- find the end zone once Jones gets more comfortable letting it rip and gets more time.
Will they get it all fixed before Tampa visits Foxboro? Probably not. They’ll be beaten mercilessly if they play against Brady and the Bucs the way they did against Zach Wilson and the Jets.
But the Patriots aren’t entering a gun fight armed with a spoon this year. They have the players. The players just haven’t had the time. Now, a quick run through The Good, The Bad and The WTF from a game that I predicted would end 26-6 and put an eyebrow on the line for.
J.C. Jackson has started 24 games in the NFL. He’s got 20 career interceptions. That’s three more than Malcolm Butler has in his career. That’s five fewer than Gilmore’s got. It’s eight fewer Patrick Peterson and Devin McCourty (brilliant play by McCourty, by the way, tipping the ball to Jackson for the first of two Jackson picks on Sunday). There’s a lot of "right place, right time" that figures into coming up with picks but the frequency with which Jackson finds himself in the right place is wayyyy more than coincidence.
James White has 12 catches for 94 yards in the first two games. We knew he’d feast a bit going against a Cover-3 defense but the upshot of White’s early-season production is that Jones’ short-area touch and accuracy are going to get White back to being himself in this offense.
White’s caught 12 of the 13 balls thrown his way to start the season. In 2020, his targets, catches per game and yards per game were the lowest they’d been since 2015. Now he’s back in the mix like he was before.
The Patriots secondary held Jets wideout Corey Davis to two catches for eight yards. You have to grade everything about the Jets passing offense on a curve because of Wilson’s ineptitude, but if holding Davis in check was high on the Patriots list of priorities -- and it had to be -- that got done.
Right tackle was AN ISSUE, especially in the first half for the Patriots. Starter Yasir Durant was completely overmatched early on, letting up pressures and sacks. He was relieved by both Justin Herron and Yodny Cajuste as the game went on. The heat on Jones from the right side really seemed to alter the Patriots’ game plan and decision-making for the rest of the game.
For the second week in a row, the Patriots had plays with a rash of bad tackling in the running game. The Jets had 30 carries for 152 yards (4.9 average) and allowed four carries by running backs that went for 13 yards or more. As well as the Patriots secondary played, the front seven and defensive line were a letdown. The one player who has shown up is Ja'Whaun Bentley, who had eight tackles (one TFL) and had a nice pass breakup/near pick.
Of the Patriots’ 11 drives, seven ended on the Jets side of the field. Two ended with touchdowns, three ended with field goals. Finishing drives offensively is going to be a major point of emphasis, especially when the quarterback talent on the other side of the field starts to improve.
The Patriots had six penalties for 54 yards. They had eight for 84 in the opener. The Patriots were by far the least-penalized team in the NFL last year in flags and yardage against. They currently have the 18th-most penalties and 10 most yards against.
Left tackle Isaiah Wynn is tied for second in the league (with 14 other players) with three penalties (two holds and a false start). Last season, two Patriots led the team with four penalties for the year (N’Keal Harry and Gilmore).
Obviously, Damien Harris shedding Jets at an alarming rate on his 26-yard touchdown run was the No. 1 highlight for the Patriots running game. But the running game’s production on a down-to-down basis isn’t there yet. New England ran for 101 on 24 carries with 62 on 16 for Harris. But the total was buoyed by that explosive run by Harris and a 16-yard carry by Kendrick Bourne.
They had 22 carries for 59 yards when you take those runs out. Last week, they had 30 carries for 125 but 35 of those came from Harris on his first run of the day. So they’ll be looking for more consistency there.
It’s no surprise that the Patriots' first two opponents wanted to bring heat on Jones. And he did a nice job for the most part of getting the ball out (22 for 30), thanks to a number of screens the Patriots called. This is what Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins had to say about the pressure.
"The screens are going to be something we get all year regardless of if we face a rookie quarterback or whoever it is," said Rankins. "I think we did some good things getting off the field on third downs against him, showing him some different looks, being able to pressure and fluster him a little bit and not allow him to go through all his progressions and reads and force him out the pocket.
"We were able to sack him a few times as well. Any time you can hit a young quarterback, kind of ruffle his feathers that’s going to big especially if you do it early in the game. You can usually expect a team to not allow him to take too many more chances after that."
Jones seemed to agree with the lack of chances he took.
"I think it was just me. I can push the ball down the field more," he said. "They did kind of what we expected them to do. They obviously have a good defensive line like we said, and I can definitely just hold the ball in a good way, and maybe just move and try to make a better throw down the field on a lot of plays.
"I just have to watch it and see, but when you’re out there you can see it, talk about it with Josh (McDaniels) and Brian (Hoyer) and then kind of move from there. We’ll watch it and we’ll find ways to improve on that."