They weren't major plays. They certainly didn't decide Thursday night's inauspicious but respectable 19-14 victory over the Buccaneers. And there's no guarantee that they are the launching pad for the 2017 Patriots on offense or defense.
But there were two plays against Tampa Bay that caught my eye and showed, for different reasons, why the Patriots are making progress -- even if it's hard to discern on the field.
Play No. 1
Situation: Buccaneers ball, third-and-6 from the New England 42-yard line
Time of game: 6:57 left in the third quarter.
What happened: Incomplete pass to Cameron Brate, defended by Patrick Chung.
We'll start on the defensive side of the ball, because that's where most of the concern resides with this team.
This play happened after the Brandon Bolden punt penalty, which kept the defense needlessly on the field. What caught my eye about this one was the execution at all levels of the defense. That might sound basic and uninspiring, but considering where this unit has been, trust me, this is progress. It combined good physical play, good communication and just a general knowledge of the scheme and how to help each other out.
You had good man coverage from Stephon Gilmore, Jonathan Jones, and Chung. Malcolm Butler lost DeSean Jackson through the trash, but Devin McCourty did a nice job stepping up on Jackson to give Butler time to catch up. Kyle Van Noy got in the preferred throwing lane to Brate to start the play, and then tightened up on the running back. You also saw the pass rush, after Trey Flowers was initially knocked for a loop, get a good, even rush from both sides (Deatrich Wise and, eventually, Flowers) and Dont'a Hightower up the middle.
Here's the video:
This is just good, solid team defense. Nothing exciting, but not really any big seams or mismatches for a team to exploit. To me, this bodes well for the future, and it shows they're far from a lost cause.
Play No. 2
Situation: Patriots ball, second-and-24 from the New England 29-yard line
Time of game: 7:01 left in the second quarter.
What happened: Tom Brady 19-yard pass to Brandin Cooks.
For background, in the Week 3 win over the Texans, we highlighted a play that illustrated how Brandin Cooks and Tom Brady weren't synced up yet. There were back-to-back passes right before halftime that just looked like poor throws by Brady. I will submit that I think Cooks ran that route a little deeper than Brady wanted, and that was the reason for the incompletion. Here's that video:
In the past two games we've seen Cooks and Brady run basically the same plays and complete them for important gains to eventually keep drives alive. Here are those videos:
These plays stand out for me because a) they illustrate the growing relationship between Cooks and Brady, and b) they're starting to become go-to plays for the Patriots.
Now, I know Brady loves his quick, little option routes because they're high percentage and they allow him to keep his hits to a minimum (a growing importance). But these Brady-to-Cook deep comebacks are big too. They're being used to get the Patriots out of trouble, and they're very hard to defend because cornerbacks have to respect Cooks' deep speed. Malcolm Mitchell ran this route before his injury, but not this well. And there are so many other things — bigger plays — the Patriots can run off this play once DBs study the film (out-and-ups, stutters-and-go's, etc) and try to combat it, that the options are really limitless. And once Brady and Cooks are able to anticipate each other's reactions to the DBs, then this play could become an unstoppable thing of beauty.
Here are the positional ratings against the Buccaneers:
Quarterback (4 out of 5)
Outside of that terrible interception, pretty close to a flawless game out of Tom Brady. The ball must have slipped out of his hands. Brady doesn’t lead a receiver — especially one as open as Chris Hogan — that poorly unless he’s under pressure (he wasn’t) or the ball slips. All told, we had him for 11 plus plays (10 throws, one against pressure) and four minus plays, including the interception. That’s a very good day at the office. The big quibble was Brady not seeing a wide-open Danny Amendola on second down in the red zone before halftime. That was the difference between a field goal and a touchdown. Brady invited two pressures on his own, and you’d like to see him start throwing the ball away sooner. But it’s a tough line to balance. We’ve seen him make plays when he extends them, we’ve also seen him take unnecessary hits. … The sideline teardrop throws to James White and Brandin Cooks were just sensational. This is the area — touch passes of medium length — is where Brady has shown the most improvement over last season. Amazing that he’s still capable of getting better, and he actually works to do it at age 40.
Running backs (4 out of 5)
Might be the best this group has looked this season. The big revelation, and it will only encourage the drumbeat for more touches, was Dion Lewis, who busted off a big 31-yard run, and he also made two tacklers whiff on a nifty 10-yard run. On the big run -- yes, he broke the “tackle” of the safety to really pop it, but that was a very poor tackle attempt that you’d like to think Mike Gillislee would also bounce off of. Overall, the play was extremely well blocked. I wouldn’t put it as example of why Lewis needs to run the ball more. … James White was James White. You could definitely make the argument that he’s the best receiving back in the NFL, even if he had a rare drop. … Gillislee continues to run hard and decisively. Thought he ran into one stuff when it’s his job to make a guy miss. Would like to see him initiate more contact, which wouldn’t allow the tackler to prepare for the hit. Might help him bounce off a bit more. … James Develin had one of his better blocking days.
Receivers (2.5 out of 5)
When you factor in Dwayne Allen and his hurry and two run stuffs allowed, this group (which also had two penalties and a Brandin Cooks drops) was average. You could often make the case that Allen deserved playing time because of his blocking, but that took a big step back in this game. You now have to be on alert for his playing time to continue to dwindle. If Jacob Hollister could block at all, Allen might already be riding the pine. … Danny Amendola is just nails. It’s hard to imagine where they’d be without him.
Offensive line (2 out of 5)
Line in order of performance, from best to worst: Cannon and Mason (tied), Thuney, Andrews, Solder. ... Yes, Nate Solder is scuffling. He has so many technique issues at this point that they have to be related to something physically going on with him. His feet often get way too narrow, and sometimes he even crosses over (a big no-no). Solder's also doing a lot of leaning and lunging. To me, that means he's overcompensating for something with his legs, like a groin issue or something along those lines. At this point, he is what he is. At least the Patriots know he has to be managed with help. .... Marcus Cannon was better in this game (including a great two-for-one block on the Brady-to-White teardrop), but he still has some alarming technique problems which are a departure from last year, when his technique was terrific. He’s become a big hand dropper — before making contact with the rusher, he drops his hands to his thighs. It's possible this is being coached (Solder does similar) by Dante Scarnecchia so the blocker "catches" the rusher, but it doesn't look right to me. ... David Andrews had a really rough game, and it continues to trend during his career that he has issues with bigger interior rushers. His demonstration without his helmet on a Dion Lewis run cost the Patriots yards. I'm sure he heard about it in the o-line room.
Defensive line (3 out of 5)
The pressure percentage of 22.4 percent (average is 34 percent) is nowhere near good enough, even if the Patriots were often content to rush three and play coverage against Jameis Winston. But more disturbing were all the miscues from this group. We counted 10, when usually they are around three or four. Trey Flowers, who is still the best player by far, had two blown gaps and one edge. Lawrence Guy, Malcolm Brown and Adam Butler got shoved out of their gaps once each. Cassius Marsh and Deatrich Wise (two) each had penalties just before the half. Just very, very sloppy. ... The problems in the run game — and they were very boom or bust illustrated by the 38.9 stuff percentage (high) and 4.5 rush average (poor) — are not physical issues, outside of Butler's tendency to get shoved around due to his small size. They are about discipline and determination, and it can be cleaned up. ... Another week, another case where Flowers and Wise are the only pass rushers, although Dont'a Hightower did help this week.
Linebackers (3 out of 5)
A better week overall for this unit, likely because Hightower played more in the middle. He just brings a confidence to the group. Van Noy was better this week but he still gets washed out in the run game too much for an NFL backer. Same goes for Elandon Roberts, who continues to be boom or bust in his second year. Too often it seems like he's guessing. The good linebackers don't guess, they know through study and preparation. Wondering if Van Noy blew a coverage on that way-too-easy 41-yard pass to DeSean Jackson in the fourth quarter. There was absolutely no one in the middle of the field at linebacker.
Secondary (2.5 out of 5)
Better than last week, which isn't saying much at all, and improved play overall. But there are still issues, including missed tackles (Malcolm Butler, Patrick Chung) and sloppy technique in pass coverage (Stephon Gilmore, Butler). The Patriots played more zone (Cover 3, Tampa 2) than I would have expected. ... There was definitely a concerted effort to dumb things down and go back to basics. Some of it was to combat Tampa's tight end- and running back-heavy formations, but I think part of it was the Patriots had gone too far afield with their infatuation of having the three safeties on the field. The old saying is, "Show me a safety, and I'll show you a corner who couldn't cover well enough to stay there." Well, some of that applies here. We saw a lot more of the Patriots going back to their base alignments with Devin McCourty as the deep safety, and Chung up closer to the line as a strong safety or his old star position (slot corner), with Duron Harmon playing less as the deep safety in passing situations or against certain personnel groupings. ... Chung certainly earned a nod for his work against Brate.
Tom Brady: Yeah, the interception was really bad. But it was a physical mistake, and not a mental one. Besides that, he was throwing dimes all over the field. Just stop taking hits.
James White: Gets a slight nod over Danny Amendola because he's more consistent, and not just clutch (he's that too).
Devin McCourty: Seemed to, finally, be back playing his old spot and doing his thing. It's no coincidence that things ran smoother with McCourty often in the middle of the field.
Special teams: I don't care how many field goals they kick, three special teams penalties are unacceptable, especially when half the roster feels like it's special teams-only players.
Nate Solder: Too many negative plays for a franchise left tackle. Needs to get his feet moving again.
Dwyane Allen: I had a huge man crush on him as a rookie with the Colts, but that seems like a very long time ago. He's getting dangerously close to being benched. And I feel a little bad because he's obviously trying hard.