The number of people actually listening to Jay Gruden seems to be dwindling. But two things the Redskins coach said this week stood out to me.
The first was in reference to the sorry state of his offense. Could any of his three available quarterbacks have success?
“Whichever quarterback it is, No. 1 – we've got to protect them if we're going to throw it,” he said this week with some exasperation. “We have to do a better job protecting them, and our receivers have to do a good job and tight ends and backs have to do a great job of getting separation.
“I don't care who the quarterbacks are,” he added. “If we don't have any protection and we can't get separation, Tom Brady wouldn't have any success here. We've got to do a great job of protecting the quarterback, communicating, and then the receivers have got to do a good job of getting open.”
That quote made my ears perk because this concept– that without pass protection and open receivers, quarterbacks play badly – is the most stubbornly ignored fact in professional football.
It’s why the Patriots offense didn’t look good for nine straight quarters – three against the Jets, four against Buffalo and two on Sunday against Washington.
It wasn’t that the Patriots didn’t want to score anymore or that Tom Brady was skittish or mad or aging. Josh McDaniels wasn’t getting too cute and Sony Michel wasn’t in need of a replacement.
The guys who allow the guys to run and throw needed to do a better job.
And the guys who catch needed to get where they were supposed to be with fewer defenders in tow.
Until then? The quarterback in particular and the offense in general will look like ass.
Which is what it looked like in the first half for the Patriots against the 0-4 (now 0-5 Redskins).
Bringing me to the other Gruden nugget regarding what he saw Buffalo do to slow down Brady.
“They did a job stopping the run, and in passing situations, getting a little bit of pressure on Tom,” said Gruden. “Really it's all about pressure. Stopping the run with them, and then obviously handling some of their unique formations and (Julian) Edelman out in space on the shallow crosses … the running backs are very productive out of the backfield catching the football. But really, I still think stopping the run is key because Tom gets a ton of action, a ton of plays with his play-action passes. He's one of the best play-action passers in the game in my opinion, or probably the best.”
So here’s what happened on Sunday. The Patriots came out throwing. They used some tendency-breakers – an 11-yard pass to Sony Michel on the first drive, a 29-yarder to tight end Ryan Izzo, a 22-yarder to Matt Lacosse and a 15-yarder to Michel on the second drive – intended to disrobe the Redskins. They also missed a deep post to Josh Gordon on a ball that Brady probably didn’t put enough air under after Gordon got knocked off his route.
And it worked. Until it didn’t. The Patriots bogged down at the end of their third drive after once again getting some chunk plays in the passing game. They had a third-and-4 that turned into a third-and-9 after an Edelman false start. They didn’t pick up the first on third-and-9 and went for it on fourth-and-1. After James White was dropped for a loss, the camera eventually panned to Brady on the bench and he seemed to mouth the word, “Stupid.”
The Patriots stalled on their next too but this time gave new kicker Mike Nugent a chance to redeem himself for his missed PAT and got a 37-yard field goal to make it 9-7.
A sack of Brady on the next drive got them behind the sticks – their second (there’s the pressure Gruden referred to) – and the Patriots had to punt. One play after the punt, they had the ball back at the Redskins 16 after Jonathan Jones forced a fumble. But– on third-and-6 – Brady got blitzed and threw blindly to White near the end zone. For the second week in a row it was a turnover in or near the end zone.
When the Patriots got the ball back with 1:48 left, they went three-and-out. A gift interception from Colt McCoy just before the half put them in business at the Redskins 11 and they again couldn’t punch it in down deep and settled for another field goal.
By halftime, the Patriots were 2-for-9 on third down and 0-for-1 on fourth down. They’d gone 1 for 4 in the red zone including Brady’s pick.
Yes, they were up 12-7 and when the levee broke for the Redskins – as we all knew it would – it came because of the battering the Patriots running game unleashed on it.
The Patriots ran seven times for 19 yards in the first half. They had 20 carries for 111 in the second half as Michel – for the first time this season – found room to operate.
What Gruden said came to fruition. Once the Redskins – who’d been hellbent on getting to Brady – started getting worked in the running game, they came undone. The Patriots had 67 yards rushing on the first two drives of the second half and capped both drives with touchdowns.
But it wasn’t until the Patriots got going on the ground that they were able to truly have their way. And they got to that point, as ESPN’s Mike Reiss noted after speaking to Brady and Josh Gordon in the postgame, by going up-tempo to wear down the Washington front so that they were ripe to be run against in the second half.
The Patriots defense is going to keep overwhelming offenses which will give the offense plenty of time to figure it out.
What will figuring it out consist of? Scaring teams with their running game the same way they did at the tail end of last year. They don’t really have the horses at wideout and tight end to gallop around the secondary with a hand up waiting for a throw. Especially against better teams.
Overmatched opponents who watched this offense against the Jets, Bills and the first half of the Washington game will determine that attempting to force mistakes is the way to go.
A harried Brady isn’t going to have time to wait for Gordon or Edelman to uncover from all the attention they’re getting. So do unto Brady before he does unto them.
In the second half Sunday, the cavalry – in the form of the running game – finally showed signs of life. Which is exactly what Gruden said would be the end of the Redskins. And it was.
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