Is Coaching to Blame in Patriots Loss to Cowboys?

Bill Belichick is an all-time great head coach, but did he cost the Patriots a win on Sunday?

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

After a 2013 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick stood in front of his team with a simple message. “You can’t win until you keep from losing,” he told the team in the locker room after the loss. He continued, “Watch the games this weekend, there’s going to be a couple NFL, college, high school games where somebody is losing the game rather than winning it.”

Another Belichick coaching pearl from his countless press conferences applies to this season as well. “Let your opponents make your mistake, take care of what you need to take care of, keep everything in play and not give it away.” Yet it’s the Patriots making the mistakes that are giving their opposition the chance to win.

So, if Belichick is acutely aware of what it takes to win games in the NFL, why do the New England Patriots keep losing these games that they should’ve won?

Two blocked punts in one season? Against a Belichick coached team? That had never happened before to a Patriots team under Belichick. The last time a New England team had two blocked punts in a season was 1993, under Parcells. Belichick was in his third season as the Browns coach.

There have been too many instances where the Patriots shoot themselves in the foot instead of playing fundamentally sound football and allowing their opponent to make the mistake. The pick-six was a ball that should have been caught. Regardless of the rest of the game, it was that play that decided the outcome.

Nelson Agholor had a chance to make it moot in overtime, but let a slant go through his hands while all he had to do was outrun a single high safety. Maybe he doesn’t score but he definitely is well into Dallas territory before going down.

Pre-game decisions come back to haunt Patriots

Decisions made even before the game had an impact on its outcome, too. Instead of calling up practice squad member DB Myles Bryant, the Patriots dressed an extra LB. Reserve linebackers Harvey Langi and Jahlani Tavi played a total of 31 snaps-on special teams. Neither saw a defensive snap. The Patriots dealt with injuries all game, losing linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Chase Winovich, and Ja’Whuan Bentley for stretches, as well as defensive backs Adrian Phillips and Jonathan Jones.

McCourty lamented the absences in the secondary and chalked up CeeDee Lamb’s 24-yard gain on third and 25 to the injuries in the secondary. Maybe someone like Bryant or JoeJuan Williams makes a difference, maybe they don’t. But if a team captain is verbalizing having special teamer Justin Bethel playing coverage snaps, maybe it’s worth criticizing.

The offensive line was shuffling all game long as well. After wondering for the last five weeks why Onwenu wasn’t playing right tackle and inserting Karras at left guard, it finally happened against Dallas. After Cajuste did his best revolving door impersonation on the strip-sack, the team finally put Onwenu in the game.

He stabilized the right side of the line even though Herron and Wynn would rotate due to performance throughout. The Pats already picked up Wynn’s fifth-year option, but his performance hasn’t been good enough to beat out the backup tackles. Maybe whenever Brown returns, he’ll return at left tackle and the offensive line will have found a stable grouping.

Perhaps Belichick has forgotten one of Sun Tzu’s teaching points in the Art of War; “opportunities multiply as they are seized…In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” For being an avid fan of the book, this lesson is the antithesis of the Patriots season thus far.

Special Teams not-so-special after all

The Patriots punted on 4th & 1 from their own 35 (after a catch by Meyers that should’ve warranted a second look AND the punt was blocked), 4th & 2 from the 50, 4th & 4 from their 46, and 4th & 3 from their 46 in overtime. Except for the blocked punt, the Cowboys would score points after each of those sequences. Not all fourth downs are created equal, but there was more than enough reason to go for one or two — or all three — of those.

The Patriots continue to be extremely cautious with Mac at quarterback. They had 90 seconds left in the first half to try to get into field goal range. Instead, a Damien Harris carry and two kneel-downs to get New England to halftime. Josh McDaniels told us earlier in the week he’s been hearing it from his wife for some of his play calls. Hopefully Mrs. McDaniels continues to be in his ear this week.

After only four completions over 20 yards the first five weeks of the season, Mac doubled that against the Cowboys on Sunday going 4-4 for 144 yards and 2 TDs. The throw to Hunter Henry for the touchdown, and the throw to Agholor on the corner route showed anticipation and understanding of route concepts against coverage. The time has come to take the training wheels off and let Mac cook.

There is something to be said about keeping from losing before being able to win, but there is a noticeable difference in playing the game to win versus playing the game not to lose. The Pats have been playing not to lose. That’s why they’re 0-3 in one-possession games. They already used their season pass for a moral victory against the Bucs. It’s time to start changing the number in the win column.

Odds and Ends from Sunday

Gunner Olszewski had a 23-yard punt return in the third quarter to set up the Pats. He got his only offensive snap of the night right after the return, being flagged for a false start.

The Patriots’ offensive line only allowed 7 pressures against the Cowboys. With no player being responsible for more than one.

David Andrews didn’t allow a single pressure.

The Patriots were 102-1 when leading at halftime in Gillette stadium before this season. They are 0-2 this year at Gillette when leading at half.

Meyers is slowly becoming a dependable tough catch guy. A few catches yesterday he made knowing he was going to get blasted. Hopefully, he can get a TD this week against the Jets.

Matt Judon was held without a sack but still led the Patriots with 6 pressures.

Christian Barmore and Kyle Van Noy were second on the team with three pressures apiece.

The Cowboys only scored 10 points on 4 trips into the red zone.

Mac was 7/7 for 100 yards and a touchdown at halftime. Impressive stat line but the lack of attempts was reflective of the discrepancy in play totals for the two teams. Dallas ran 82 plays to New England’s 50.

Mac Jones’ 71.1 completion percentage is the highest ever by a rookie in his first 6 career starts.

Coverage stats:

Jalen Mills: 6-8, 84 yards, 2 TDs

Jonathan Jones: 5-7, 73 yards

J.C. Jackson: 5-9, 67 yards

Devin McCourty: 3-5, 60 yards

Ja’Whaun Bentley: 4-4, 42 yards

Dont’a Hightower: 4-4, 40 yards, TD

Kyle Dugger: 4-4, 33 yards (1 INT that he wasn’t primary in coverage for)

New England Patriots vs Dallas Cowboys Preview

Patriots versus Cowboys breakdown in typical “who has the advantage when…” format loaded with facts and snippits about the Pats season.

New England Patriots
(Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The New England Patriots’ victory against the Texans was U-G-L-Y. While fans were not impressed, players and coaches were impressed with the team’s effort to fight through adversity. While it wasn’t a dominant effort, these ugly wins sometimes provide momentum. Case in point? 2001, Week 5. Patriots are 1-3 coming into the game and trail by 10 in the fourth quarter. A certain young QB threw his first career touchdown pass before the Pats won the game in overtime, 29-26.

This year? Pats are 1-3 entering week 5, trail by seven entering the fourth quarter, and get the comeback. The league, especially the AFC, is loaded with top-end-talented teams this year; maybe the comeback against Houston gets this team rolling. The Pats have shown to have the talent to lock down the Buccaneers and exhibit incredibly balanced offensive talent; they just need to execute better. If they do, watch out.

They’ll get their first chance to do so this Sunday against a very talented Dallas Cowboys team. Everybody knows the Cowboys tout an extremely talented core of offensive players, but their defense has been stealing headlines throughout the season. While it’s an extremely improved group over last year, their passing defense is surviving on takeaways. New England fans will appreciate that effort but know the dangers in playing that sort of game.

The only difference? Dallas has been truly elite in taking the ball away. Weird stat for this one? The Cowboys won the first seven matchups between these two teams before the Pats ripped off six straight of their own: historical standings head-to-head? 7-6, Cowboys. We’ll dive more into this in the breakdown below. So, without further ado and continuing the “who has the advantage when…” format, the breakdown!

The New England Patriots’ Passing Attack

Two shocking stats about Mac Jones and the Patriots passing game; Mac Jones has more 20+ yard completions than Patrick Mahomes this season and according to PFF, Mac only had two turnover-worthy plays against Houston. That second stat certainly felt like a lot more.

Jones hasn’t been an unstoppable downfield thrower, but he has become an opportunistic downfield shot guy and as long as he stays smart with the ball, the Pats’ offense is in good hands. The biggest complaint is McDaniels conservative playcalling once the Patriots enter the red zone. After his dime of a touchdown throw to Henry on Sunday, hopefully, Mac has shown enough to stop the three consecutive screen calls.

The Cowboys have given up yards in the passing game, ranking 31st in the league in passing yards allowed. However, their ability to get the takeaway is incredible. They have an incredible ten (!!) interceptions through their first five games. CB Trevon Diggs has six of the ten interceptions. It would be wise for Mac to look elsewhere in the passing game.

The good news? Diggs does not often travel into the slot meaning security blankets Jakobi Meyers and Hunter Henry should draw favorable matchups. The Cowboys often engage their opponents in high-scoring affairs and part of that is the plethora of yards they let up through the air.

Advantage: New England Patriots (as long as Mac avoids Diggs on the outside)

The New England Patriots’ Run Game

For how loose the Cowboys are against the pass, they are equally stingy against the runs. The Cowboys feature the fifth-best rushing defense while the Pats boast the sixth-worst rushing offense. While the Cowboys are allowing 4.2 yards per carry, this is not an area the Pats want to have to rely on to win the game.

The offensive line was a pleasant surprise last week and the return of Shaq Mason and Mike Onwenu hopefully means even more success. Ted Karras did a wonderful job standing in at LG against the Texans and perhaps a shuffle might lead to better results for the Patriots’ offense. Sliding Onwenu out to RT where he starred as a rookie and keeping Karras at LG might be the lineup the Pats need to move the ball on the ground while also being sturdy in pass protection.

The Cowboys feature an active LB corps and a stalwart along the defensive line in Demarcus Lawrence. The Pats had a ton of success of play-action against the Texans and should try to establish the run game if only for this reason. Mac has been fantastic off of play-action throughout the season, continuing that aspect of the game will benefit everyone in the Pats offense.

Advantage: Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys’ Passing Attack

Before the season most fans would’ve been extremely concerned to hear that Jalen Mills was the key to the pass defense while playing CORNER. Mills’ absence was apparent last week as the Texans picked on Joejuan Williams, eventually forcing slot man Jonathan Jones to play to the boundary. Mills’ return this week is going to be a must for the Pats.

Dallas’ talented WR trio of Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup is a big test. In the last matchup, Stephon Gilmore erased Cooper while JC Jackson mirrored Gallup. They won’t be able to do that this year with Gilmore gone. The Pats should utilize a similar game plan as they did against the Bucs with “cat” coverage across the board. Jackson should draw Cooper, Jones on Lamb, while Mills’ return asks him to cover Gallup. It should be a battle on the outside all game long.

Safety Devin McCourty had an extremely rough game against the Texans and a return to the norm for him will go a long way towards the Pats defense having success on Sunday. The safeties will be involved in limiting the suddenly productive Dalton Schultz at tight end. He has become a security blanket for Prescott, seeing seven or more targets in the last three weeks, hauling in six in each of those contests.

Cowboys QB Dak Prescott has been fantastic in his return from a brutal ankle injury last year. To have success against him, the Pats must get pressure while also maintaining containment-something they have struggled with this season. Matt Judon continues to be a force on the outside, leading the league in tackles for loss (8), second in sacks (6.5), and sixth in QB hits (10). He’ll need to be at his best for the Pats to be disruptive here.

Rookie DT Christian Barmore is slowly rounding into form, and while his stat line remains quiet, he’s impacting the game elsewhere. He drew two holding penalties last week while facing the second-most double teams in the NFL. Sacks will eventually come for the talented second-rounder. Jamie Collins quickly reacquainted himself to the New England defense getting a sack in one of his three snaps. He should see more action this week.

Advantage: Dallas Cowboys (but not by as much as expected)

The Cowboys Run the Ball

This is where the game will be decided. The Cowboys are second in the NFL in rushing yards (864) while the Patriots are 15th against the run. The Patriots run defense comes as a surprise as they’ve been a sieve against the run thus far. The good news? Dont’a Hightower is rounding into form, playing his best game on Sunday. Hightower had five tackles, including four run stuffs. Hightower rounding into his normal disruptive forms will help immensely in steadying this defense down the stretch.

Thumper Ja’Wuan Bentley’s return will also boost the Pats’ run defense but expect to see some matchup utilization out of the Pats’ linebacking corps. With Elliot and his bruising running style on the field, expect Hightower and Bentley to man the middle. When the Cowboys deploy change of pace back Tony Pollard, Van Noy should draw the card and see some playing time.

The Cowboys no longer have All-Pros all along the offensive line but do have a sturdy group that can do the necessary dirty work. The Patriots’ defensive line doesn’t need to blow up every play but they must slow the offensive linemen from getting upfield. If the d-line can keep the linebackers clean, expect the Pats to be stingy.

They must also be disciplined in staying in their run fits to contain Dak and the designed QB runs and from keeping Dak from pulling it on an option read and skirting around the edge. The Pats won’t be able to completely stop the Cowboys running game but must contain it and limit the damage.

Advantage: Dallas Cowboys

Special Teams

The Cowboys have attempted only four kickoff returns this season, good for second least in the NFL. The Pats should try to take advantage of the lack of experience with a few kickoffs short of the goal line. The same goes for the Cowboys in the punt return game, only attempting five here as well. The Cowboys have struggled in the kicking game going 9/11 in field goals and 17/19 on PAT’s. The Pats would be wise to have the Cowboys going into the open end of the stadium in the fourth quarter in case it comes down to a field goal.

For the Patriots, Nick Folk has been incredibly consistent since joining the Pats last year and has continued to be this year. His four made field goals last week, including two from 50+ earned him AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors. Folk now joins Stephen Gostowski as the only Patriots kickers to make two 50+ field goals in one game. It was also his third time as a Patriot with four made field goals in a game. And in a “brag about your kicker” kind of way, he’s second in the league in points scored.

Belichick’s affection for special teams is well known and the mismatch here might allow for the Pats to steal a possession or get some very important hidden yards.

Advantage: New England Patriots

Coaching

The stuff of legends: Mike McCarthy vs. Bill Belichick. Just kidding. McCarthy was scared to answer questions from Boston Media on Wednesday for fear of Belichick gaining valuable information. While McCarthy isn’t a rookie coach, he has been prone to making rookie decisions. His decision-making process for going for two or going for it on fourth down is not based on analytics or old-school football knowledge but more in a “well why not now?” sort of way. As we saw last week, some coaches can’t help but get out of their own way against Belichick. There should be a couple of situations that fall into this category on Sunday.

Advantage: New England Patriots

Prediction

Despite obvious concerns regarding the New England Patriots, it feels like a “trap game” for Dallas. Essentially, the Pats will do just enough to get an ugly, if not signature win. Mac Jones has been steadily progressing and may be on the verge of putting it all together. Hightower rounding into form with the talent of Judon, Van Noy, and Collins will assist a typical Patriots defense while Belichick shows that the Texans game was a mere blip on the radar (he was honestly extremely proud of the teams’ effort last week, something that hasn’t been making the national media rounds).

A loss on Sunday would drop the Pats to 0-4 at home this season, something that feels unprecedented. The offensive line keeps Mac mostly clean while the defensive game plan reverts to the old bend-but-don’t-break.

Pats win 26-24

Patriots vs Texans Preview

Patriots vs Texans breakdown in “who has the advantage when…” style. Preview of the game in all phases of the sport.

Patriots vs Texans
HOUSTON, TEXAS – NOVEMBER 22: Damien Harris #37 of the New England Patriots attempts to break a tackle from Justin Reid #20 of the Houston Texans in the fourth quarter during their game at NRG Stadium on November 22, 2020 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

The Patriots look to double their win total vs a Texans team seeking the same outcome. After a hard-fought defeat to the Buccaneers last week, the Patriots look to take on a Texans team reeling from three straight losses, including the 40-0 smackdown against the Bills last week. It will be a battle of rookie QB’s when the two teams meet up, but how each rookie gained their starting job couldn’t be any more different.

Mac Jones beat out incumbent Cam Newton to win the starting gig coming out of training camp. Texans Rookie Davis Mills (Stanford) was picked in the third round with the Texans’ first pick of the draft to largely play backup to Tyrod Taylor. However, when Taylor injured his hamstring in week 2 against the Browns, it forced Mills into action. A week after holding a living legend to mortal numbers, the Patriots defense will again need to be active on Sunday to help the team win with a skeleton crew of a roster making the trip.

We’ll again stick with last week’s iteration of game preview, using the “who has the advantage when…” style. So, without further ado.

The Patriots Run the Ball

The Patriots are suddenly a team struggling to move the ball on the ground. Don’t expect that to change this week as the only returning starter along the offensive line is center David Andrews. The Patriots leading rusher a week ago was WR Nelson Agholor, who had a long of 4 yards. Collectively, the Pats totaled 8 carries for -1 yard on the ground.

That’s not a typo, a Bill Belichick coached had -1 rushing yard for an entire game. A week before, the Patriots had 49 yards on 17 carries. This has been a downward trend since the season opener against the Dolphins for the Pats. Behind a patchwork offensive line, the work won’t be getting any easier for the Patriots’ running backs.

The silver lining? The Texans have been extremely porous against the run, allowing an average of 137 yards per game to their opponents with an extremely generous 4.5 yards per carry average. While the Texans boast an active linebacking corps, the defensive line has been quiet through the first quarter of the NFL season. The lack of production among their down linemen has allowed the linebackers more than their fair share of chances to pad stats with tackles multiple yards downfield, which is exactly what has occurred.

Despite the Texans’ troubles defending the run, it won’t be an easy day in the office for the Patriots rushing attack. Expect this to be a difficult endeavor to get the ground game going. Damien Harris and the other Patriot’s running backs were having a difficult time executing the Patriots rushing attack behind the starting offensive line, it won’t get any easier behind the patchwork starting five against the Texans.

Advantage: Patriots (somehow)

The Patriots Pass the Ball

McDaniels embraced Mac Jones and his strengths last week against the Bucs. Facing a strong front seven but an injured secondary, the Pats spread it out, often going with three wide receiver sets. These personnel groupings not only plays to Jones’ strengths in the short to intermediate passing game, but it helps the rookie identify defensive play calls before the snap.

The Patriots would be wise to utilize this game plan again against the Texans. With Mac playing behind four new starters up front, putting him in the gun and letting him identify his mismatches before the snap will allow him to get the ball out quick and avoid getting killed. If the Patriots’ running game falters at all, expect them to replace it with a quick passing game to keep the offense in manageable situations.

The Texans’ secondary is largely comprised of “remember them” names. While they may have some notable names on their roster, the Texans’ passing defense has been middle of the pack. They have allowed an average of 260 yards passing per game but have buoyed that performance with timely takeaways and stiff red zone passing defense.

The Texans have allowed 6 passing touchdowns while collecting 5 interceptions. Safety Justin Reid leads the team with 2, while CB’s Vernon Hargreaves III and Lonnie Johnson Jr., and linebacker Christian Kirksey have one apiece.

The Texans pass rush starts with hybrid defensive end/linebacker Whitney Mercilus who has collected 3 sacks on the season. The team has a total of 7 sacks to this point in the season. Outside of Mercilus, these sacks are largely designed pressures and not one on one pass rush wins. Don’t be surprised if some of these schemes and games fool the Pats’ backup o-linemen and we see Mac on the ground more than we’d like.

It’ll all come down to protecting Mac. The Texans will know the Pats want to get the ball out of his hand quickly and would be smart to clog the underneath passing lanes. If so, Mac will need to have time to work through his progressions. If the Pats can afford him that time, then the passing offense will have success. If not, it could be a frustrating day in the office. A big game from the tight ends might be in store if the Pts can consistently get them lined up on the Texans linebackers.

Advantage: Patriots

The Texans Run the Ball

The Texans have been anything but a dominant rushing team this season. Paced by a veteran group (and I mean veteran with a capital V), the team has gained 332 yards on the ground. For comparison’s sake, the Pats have 274. The Texans had 48 rushing yards last week against the Bills, and it wasn’t because the game got out of hand quickly. The Texans trailed 16-0 at the half and 19-0 after three. Still, plenty of reason to stay balanced on offense.

The week before, the Texans rushed for 42 yards against the Panthers. Almost half of the Texans rushing yards (160) came in week 1 against the Jaguars. The Texans again were productive on the ground through the first half against the Browns before QB Tyrod Taylor got injured. The loss of a dynamic runner at the QB position has made the Texans run game one-dimensional.

Just as a porous Texans defense might be the medicine the Patriots rushing game needs to get back on track, facing the Patriots defense might do the same for a struggling Texans attack. The Patriots rank 20th in rush defense thus far into the season. Dont’a Hightower hasn’t been the same player since returning and was leapfrogged by Kyle Van Noy last week in playtime. The loss of Ja’Whaun Bentley hasn’t helped the Patriots rush defense either.

Bentley is questionable to play against the Texans while Jamie Collins is set to make his (third?) Patriots debut. The return of both Collins and Bentley could mean a bolstered Patriots rushing defense. At the very least, it should help keep guys fresh with a more active rotation.

A week after Belichick putting on a coaching clinic against one of the most talented offenses in the league, I have a feeling he keeps his defense on track with a resurgent effort against a struggling Texans run game. The best thing the Pats can do is overplay the run and force a rookie QB to try to beat them through the air.

For a game the features the two franchises planet-sized-defender-of-the-middle Vince Wilfork played for, it’ll be a game lacking in run defense.

Advantage: Patriots

The Texans Pass the Ball

Rookie Davis Mills was highly touted as a draft prospect. NFL evaluators loved his arm strength and ability to spread the ball around along with his above-average escape-ability. However, the negatives from his college tape have translated too easily to the NFL game. He frequently waited for the sure thing to be open, often leaving receivers waiting on his ball to arrive, and tended to be occasionally erratic with his accuracy.

Those negative traits are reflected in his professional stat line: 38/67 for 357 yards, 2 touchdowns against 5 interceptions while taking 8 sacks. The NFL level happens at a much faster speed than college, waiting for a sure thing to happen in the NFL is very rarely going to occur. His high sacks total in two and a half games shows he’s still waiting for his guys to break open while the interception total is reflective of his sporadic accuracy and receivers having to wait on the ball.

A week after making TB12 double clutch and doubt what he was seeing post-snap, the Pats defense should be able to tie this rookie’s brain into knots. Even with the loss of Jalen Mills (hamstring), the Patriots’ secondary should be able to scheme up confusing and effective coverages.

WR Brandin Cooks is the Texans leading receiver by a large margin (Cooks: 369 yards, next leading receiver: 73 yards) and should draw attention from CB1 J.C. Jackson or from a rat concept with slot corner Jonathan Jones and safety Devin McCourty over the top. Belichick is the king of making teams play left-handed and it’s never been so apparent as the Texans unbalanced passing game.

The Texans’ offensive line has long been an Achilles heel and continues to be despite significant investment. Patriots pass rushers Matt Judon and Josh Uche, along with rotating pieces Van Noy, Hightower, Collins, and Chase Winovich should all find success in one-on-one matchups. If the Pats can get Mills to second guess what he’s seeing and hold the ball the pass rush should have a VERY productive game.

Advantage: Patriots

Special Teams

The Patriots’ third unit finally got on track last week (outside of one Matt Slater penalty). They threw everything they had at the Bucs to try to gain an extra possession, but the Bucs handled it extremely well. I don’t think the Pats will be getting too exotic on special teams unless the game flow dictates it late in the matchup. Gunner Olszewski has had a quiet start to the season before a modest return last week, he might be due to break one. Nick Folk has been listed on the injury report since Week 2 but has yet to miss any time. He has been consistent and came ever so close to turning in a snow-bowl-esque kick last week in monsoon conditions.

Coaching

Belichick showed last week he still is the best defensive mind to ever don a headset. His work this week should be quite a bit easier than going against his understudy of 20 years. However, the best don’t let up against inferior opponents. Belichick knows and embraces that aspect of the game, often showing clips of Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods during team meetings to accentuate how the best never is content with simply winning, they want to dominate and embarrass their opponents. Belichick should channel that mentality in running a second consecutive coaching clinic.

McDaniels has been on the receiving end of quite a bit of criticism. None of which has been deserved. He has quietly and steadily been focusing the game plan on Mac Jones’ strengths and will continue to set the rookie up for success. After seeing how disastrous the downfield passing game could be against the Saints, Mac was happy to stay on script against the Bucs and had the best game of his young career. Hopefully, the Pats don’t need to break out Jakobi Meyers for two pass attempts this game.

Defensive play-caller Steve Belichick has been steady as long as the cameras aren’t on him….

Advantage: Patriots

Weather

It’s a dome. Unless the Chargers and Raiders decide to somehow get involved and postpone it, it shouldn’t be an issue. The Texans field is a natural grass surface that has come under criticism in seasons past but thus far in the young season has been in top shape.

Prediction

The Texans average 16.8 points per game, the Pats? 17.8. Seems a bit too straightforward. Mac Jones and the offense finally showed signs of progression last week in the red zone, going 2-3 but scoring points on every trip. The slow conversion of these trips into touchdowns is a welcome sign for the offense. The Patriots defense and special teams will need to help the offense in the scoring department, and I think they end up getting it done.

Mills will turn the ball over; the Pats just need to make them count. This is a game that has a distinct Patriots advantage in every aspect yet somehow feels will be ugly…or this is a game where the Pats outclass an inferior opponent despite having the odds against them and win going away.

Pats win 24-6.

Tom Brady: The Return

Tom Brady
FOXBORO, MA – JANUARY 16: Tom Brady #12 and head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots shake hands at the start of the AFC Divisional Playoff Game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on January 16, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Sunday night, 8:20 PM eastern standard time.

That’s when the homecoming festivities will kick-off. Freshman Mac Jones faces incumbent Senior Tom Brady to see who will win homecoming court. Security will be on high alert to ensure class jokester Rob Gronkowski doesn’t pull off any shenanigans. Fun-loving-senior-favorite Bruce Arians is sure to get lots of love from the senior class for their favorite teacher while that grumpy old guy Bill Belichick lurks in the shadows and generally ensures no one has fun. There will be presentations and ceremonies. Fireworks and cheerleaders. Family, friends, and fans will gather to support their loved ones. And oh yeah, there will be a football game too.

The defending Super Bowl Champions visit Gillette stadium to take on the 6-time World Champion New England Patriots. The GOAT, the myth, the legend of Tom Brady returns to where it all started to face the team that it all started with and the coach who gave him his start. If you’ve listened to any sports talk, watched any sports coverage, or read any sports section you’ll have heard about this one. The RETURN. The uncomfortable family get together after the divorce. This is Brady vs. the Pats. Mano a manos. One vs. eleven. Right?

Well not really. It’s still football. Eleven on eleven. X’s and O’s. For the amount of attention Brady v. Pats is getting it still comes down to doing your job. Executing your assignment. Winning your one-on-one match up. A week after the Pats did so with little consistency, they’ll need a team effort Sunday to remain in the game and give themselves a chance at winning it.

After watching the film from the Saints game, the importance of all eleven guys executing their assignment was even more evident. A single play can become a failure because one guy made an error. Those single plays can snowball and accumulate into a poor showing for an entire game or sink a team’s chances of winning. That brand of football is foreign to fans in the Northeast and hopefully, it goes back to being an unfamiliar brand of football this Sunday.

So, let’s get to a breakdown of the game this Sunday and keep it as football and team oriented as possible. We’ve heard enough about Brady versus Belichick, and we’ll hear more before and during the game. We’re going to go with a new format this week with breakdowns in areas of the game. Each section will be presented in a “who has the advantage when the…” format.

Patriots Run the Ball

The Patriots were supposed to be a running team even before Mac Jones got the nod at quarterback. The first two weeks reflected that effort as the Pats racked up 226 yards against the Dolphins and Jets. Last week the running game was abandoned early and the team racked up only 49 rushing yards. This largely could be explained by the James White injury. Damien Harris saw a season-low in snaps (22)-fewer snaps than Brandon Bolden got (33)! Harris was embarrassed in a pass protection effort after the White injury and seemed to be faded thereafter. Bolder offers presence in the passing game which led to his increase in usage, regardless of his ineffectiveness with the ball in his hands.

Hopefully, J.J. Taylor gets a little more run this week. He offers more oomph as a runner than Bolden does but his issues in pass protection are what led him to be a healthy inactive most of last year. Harris has been a force when he gets the rock, trailing only Nick Chubb, Dalvin Cook, and Javonte Williams in forced missed tackles. The Pats would be wise to rely on Harris in the traditional running game, Taylor when running out of the gun, and Bolden in obvious pass pro situations.

The tight ends have been unspectacular in the rushing game. Jonnu Smith adds a little as a ball-carrier but much less as a blocker. And Hunter Henry, the prototypical T tight end, has consistently been knocked backward at the point of attack. Jakob Johnson has done his job admirably thus far into the season but isn’t a dominating presence at fullback.

The offensive line is where the success of the offense will always come from. The interior three (LG Mike Onwenu, C David Andrews, and RG Shaq Mason) have been above-average players. They haven’t jelled completely as a unit or played to their usual dominant level, but they have been better than most. The problem along the o-line has been at both tackle spots. LT Isaiah Wynn has suddenly turned into a penalty machine with inconsistent results while right tackle has been a nightmare since Trent Brown went down with a calf injury in the first offensive series of the season.

The Buccaneers’ defense has been dominant against the run statistically; allowing 191 yards TOTAL in their three games. This is a misleading stat however. The Buccaneers’ secondary has been much maligned through the first three weeks leading opponents to pass against them with success. The Buccaneers tout a talented front season that features a lot of speed along the defensive line and linebacking corps. DT Vita Vea is an absolute behemoth in the center of their defensive line and routinely keeps talented linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White clean to make plays.

Despite the success passing against the Bucs defense, they are averaging a very respectable 3.1 yards per attempt against in the running game. The Pats will want to establish an honest attempt on the ground to help Mac but expecting success in this area will be short-sighted. Expect the Pats running game to be a nonfactor in this match up.

Advantage: Buccaneers

Patriots Pass the Ball

After all the opining of lack of deep passing game after the win against the Jets, Mac let loose, throwing 19 attempts over 15 yards downfield and 11 over 20 yards downfield. The problem is Mac connected on 3 attempts over 15 yards for 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions and was 1 of 11 for 27 yards in throws over 20 yards. Hopefully, the fantasy football and Madden fans are happy with the “opened-up” passing game.

The Patriots have to play a smart brand of offensive football this season. Protecting the ball and staying ahead of the chains. When you are taking deep shots at that rate with limited success, it isn’t helping the team. In fact, it was actively hurting them last week. Mac should take the shots when they are there but forcing them for the sake of forcing them isn’t the game plan for success for this offense. Mac needs to get back to the plan from the first two weeks, taking what is there, and marching down the field with smart football.

The loss of James White will be felt. White leads the NFL in receptions and receiving yards by a running back since 2015.

The Buccaneers’ defense has struggled to hold up in the passing game. While they feature a talented pass-rushing tandem in DT Ndamukong Suh, LB’s Devin White, Lavonte David, and Shaq Barret, and DE Jason Pierre-Paul, the defense as a whole has been susceptible to the big passing plays. Opposing offenses average 7.3 yards per attempt against this defense with 9 touchdowns against 4 interceptions. And for all the talent they boast in the defensive front seven, they have only gotten home for three sacks as a defensive unit.

The Buccaneers added Richard Sherman this week in hopes of shoring up the defensive secondary. After confusing the likes of Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Patrick Mahomes in the playoffs last year, the secondary has looked like the confused party themselves. A week after being added, don’t be surprised if Sherman joins that club this weekend.

There was optimism Trent Brown would return last week before being shut down in pre-game warm-ups. His return this week would be a huge boost to the Patriots’ pass protection and keeping Mac Jones upright. The more time Jones has to survey the field, the more success he should find. Spreading out the Buccaneers defense with three-wide looks will allow Jones to identify coverages and pressure pre-snap. Jones’ had his most success last week out of three wide sets. Perhaps we see Jonnu Smith in the backfield in gun formations this week.

Advantage: Patriots (but just slightly)

Buccaneers Run the Ball

The Buccaneers have 169 total yards rushing this season despite having talented backs in Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones II. This is largely because they haven’t really tried running the ball, averaging four attempts a quarter thus far. They average 3.5 yards per carry, a respectable total, nonetheless.

The Patriots’ run defense has been poor thus far allowing 368 yards. Run stuffing linebacker Ja’Wuan Bentley was listed on the injury report early in the week but should be good to go against the Bucs (Bentley conducted an interview Wednesday-typically a sign a player will be active).

This is where the game will come down to in my opinion. The Pats haven’t been afraid to roll out dime packages against talented QB’s in the past, daring them to hand it off again and again. We saw it with Peyton Manning throughout the 2000s and have recently seen it when the Pats play Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. If the Pats can force the Bucs to run the ball and find success in stopping them, it will go a long way to dictating the flow of the game.

Not sure the Patriots will be able to consistently stop the running game if this is the route they choose to go. They had success against the Dolphins before the Jets and Saints both had success running the ball against the Pats. The Pats may struggle even more if they do utilize a dime package as their defensive base.

Advantage: Buccaneers

Buccaneers Pass the Ball

This is the juicy match up, where Tom Brady vs. Belichick becomes reality. This is also one of the better units on the Pats team versus one of the better units on the Buccaneers roster. The return of Antonio Brown from the COVID-19 list puts the Buccaneers receiving corps at full strength but the health of Rob Gronkowski bears watching. Gronk has been listed on the injury report with a rib injury all week and is officially questionable for his game-time status although it would be extremely shocking if he did not suit up against his former employer.

The Buccaneers run a straightforward passing game under Arians and have seamlessly incorporated concepts from the Patriots playbook to make Tom Brady more comfortable. It is about execution and not long developing crazy play design (ala the Chiefs). The Patriots run a straightforward single high man press coverage concept defensively, which also comes down to execution. Though the talent among the Buccaneers wide receivers may dictate some change of pace calls from the Pats. If Gilmore was available the Pats may be able to go one for one across the board with Gilmore on Evans, JC Jackson on Godwin, and Jonathon Jones of Brown. Without Gilmore, the Pats would be left asking Jalen Mills to cover either Godwin or Brown one on one for large portions of the game. Not sure that’s a game plan the Pats want to live with.

Belichick knows Tom Brady, his tendencies, and what makes him uncomfortable. The Pats won’t try to fool Brady all too often but will be switching up looks and movements after the snap.

The most important part of the game will come down to the Patriots’ pass rush. Brady has been sacked 6 times in three games. The Pats know Brady does fine against edge pressure but struggled against pressure up the middle. A key to success would be having the edge guys win cleanly while having Hightower or Judon coming up the middle. Rookie DT Christian Barmore has had an impressive campaign thus far but has failed to finish plays. Against a less mobile quarterback such as Brady, Barmore may a better chance at getting some sacks.

Tom Brady is going to be Tom Brady. New England fans know how seldomly a team has been able to make the man look mortal. The Pats will need to take advantage of the weaknesses along the Buccaneers’ offensive line if they hope to find success defending the pass. This week above any other, the marriage between coverage and pass rush has to be perfect.

Advantage: Buccaneers

Special Teams

The Patriots pride themselves in having one of the best special team units in the NFL, which makes this year’s performance such a shock. Nick Folk has been reliable (outside of a missed PAT against the Jets) but All-Pro punter Jake Bailey has been inconsistent, to say the least. He has mixed his fair share of shanks in with his usual booming punts and has also struggled on kickoffs. The last thing the Pats can do is give Brady the ball on a short field after a score.

The Bucs haven’t asked much of Ryan Succop, who has connected on two of his three field-goal attempts. Their punter, Bradley Pinion has enjoyed a strong start while averaging 41.4 net yards per punt. The Buccaneers coverage units have been so-so to date, not letting anything explosive by while also not being a suffocating unit. Sounds a lot like the Pats units.

The hope would be to see both Buccaneer specialists often Sunday night and take advantage of the hidden yards in the special teams game. With the caliber of player rostered by the Patriots for their special teams’ units versus what the Buccaneers have, the advantage here goes to the Pats.

Advantage: Patriots

Coaching

Let’s get this straight, it’s being touted as Belichick vs. Tom Brady for a reason. Brady went to Tampa and immediately became somewhat of a coach and general manager himself. Arians is a fine coach but seemed to get a Super Bowl ring last year in spite of himself, not because of his own doing. Belichick will continue to play chess while Arians plays checkers if it comes down to it.

The match up here is Buccaneers’ defensive coordinator against Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. McDaniels has drawn the ire of many around New England for his lackluster play-calling thus far. My feeling is he is still feeling the offense and how to let Mac succeed while not putting him in a position to fail. The first two games featured bland and safe play-calling (outside of one double pass against the Jets) while he was forced into passing early and often against the Saints. McDaniels didn’t “open it up” against the Saints but the plays were a bit more aggressive than the first two weeks. A caveat here; Mac Jones admitted to changing plays at the line quite a bit and needing to trust the original play call more. Perhaps the frustration with McDaniels should be shared among all involved parties.

If we look strictly at the coaching staff, the Patriots have the edge. If we include Brady into the Bucs coaching staff, the dial swings ever so slightly in their favor.

Advantage: Patriots

Extracurriculars

There will be plenty of emotion in this game both from Tom Brady and from the Patriots. Newcomer Matt Judon was fed up with questions about Brady and he never even played with the guy. Van Noy and Hightower have both vocalized hoping to get a hit on him. McCourty would certainly love to add a certain ball to his interception collection. The pregame festivities and inevitable record-breaking for total passing yards give a chance to the Patriots to switch things up and maybe heighten some emotions for Brady. Hoping to distract this guy seems like a shot in the dark as his “laser focus” has been on display since he got into the league. Maybe Brady peppers in a few “f*** it” chucks downfield that the Pats can take advantage of.

Advantage: The Fans

Weather

The forecast for Sunday calls for showers in the evening before steady rain throughout the night. A sloppy field with sloppy conditions would benefit the Pats, even if Brady spent 20 years in sloppy New England weather with his scuba suit. Perhaps the Pats get that added element that helped them steal a game from the Ravens last year. A slick field and a wet ball could mean some fluky plays, something the Pats might be hoping for at some point on Sunday.

Usually, rain means running the ball more. If this is the case, the Patriots might find themselves at a disadvantage as they have to play their base defense more and Brady picks them apart with short passes. Even if Tom Brady is used to the conditions, hopefully, those receivers from sunny Florida aren’t.

Advantage: Patriots

Prediction

Based on the breakdown, the Patriots only advantages come in coaching, special teams, weather, and ever so slightly in their passing game. After last week’s performance, having to bank on the passing game to carry the team seems like a lost hope. McDaniels and Mac need to get back to efficient and safe play before they can hope to hang with Tom Brady and company. Brady will move the Bucs between the twenties before the Pats’ defense slows down their progress. A bend but don’t break defense will be in full force on Sunday night. In the end, the Pats just don’t have enough firepower to hang with TB12 as the Bucs pull away in the second half. Buccaneers win 31-21 with a late touchdown from the Pats to make the score a bit more respectable.