If you tuned out of the Patriots' 33-8 rout of the Raiders once Tom Brady hit Brandin Cooks in stride for a 64-yard touchdown on the third play of the second half to make it 24-0, we don't really blame you. The game was largely over at that point, and all that was left to see was whether or not Rob Gronkowski would have an actual fiesta on the Estadio Azteca turf.
But if you weren't paying attention, then you missed some fairly interesting developments on the defensive side of the ball.
But that's OK. That's what we're here for.
For the first 33 minutes, 44 seconds of the contest — up until the Raiders' third down to end their first drive of the second half — the Patriots' defense was very predictable and boring. They didn't blitz once on 17 snaps, and the only creative concept the Patriots used to bring pressure at Derek Carr was one measly zone exchange — which is not a "blitz" because the defense is still using four players to bring pressure. (The basic concept is a linebacker rushes the passer, while a lineman drops into zone coverage).
But starting with that third-down incompletion at the 11:16 mark of the third quarter through the final gun, everything changed. The Patriots brought a ton of pressure — more than I can recall them using in such a short time-frame — and in a variety of different ways.
How did they do it and, more importantly, why might they have decided to do that? Let's break it all down.
First, let's start with the chart to illustrate exactly what we're talking about and the scope of it. The numbers in the gray boxes represent regular, no-pressure rushes. The boxes in yellow represent different pressure concepts.
So before the line of demarcation, the Patriots used pressure concepts on 1 of 17 snaps (5.9 percent). After, they did it 69.7 percent (23 of 33 snaps) of the time despite the fact that the score was 24-0, 27-0, 30-0, 30-8 and 33-8.
Let's set aside the fact that it's highly unusual for any defense — but especially the blitz-adverse Patriots – to dramatically increase their pressure concepts in a blowout (you'd rather play safe and burn clock). Let's just talk about the variety.
Five-man blitz (10 of 33 snaps): Your regular, run-of-the-mill pressure where an additional player (normally a linebacker) supplements the four-man rush of the defensive linemen. In this game, the Patriots also sprinkled in some corner blitzes.
Six-man blitz (2 of 33 snaps): The Patriots don't run many six-man pressures in any games, let alone a blowout, because it's an "all-out blitz" leaving only five defenders to cover the five eligible receivers in man coverage.
Zone exchange (1 of 33): Basically, a player who normally rushes the quarterback (say, an end) exchanges his rush responsibility for the coverage responsibility of another player (inside linebacker) and drops into zone coverage.
Zone exchange 3-for-2 (3 of 33): This is a new one for me in my time watching the Patriots. This is still a zone exchange (rushing four) but with a big twist. With five players on the line of scrimmage, three drop into zone coverage (Marquis Flowers, Kyle Van Noy, Trey Flowers) after the snap but two additional players (Patrick Chung, Jonathan Jones) come from depth to rush the quarterback giving the Patriots four rushers. Yes, that sounds confusing, but here's a video of it.
Zone blitz 3-for-2 (1 of 33): This is when the normal four rushers go after the quarterback, but an expected fifth rusher (outside linebacker) drops into coverage but another player (cornerback) does become a fifth rusher.
The Patriots got really creative with this one. Again, I don't remember seeing this ever before (would probably be more of an old-school Belichick concept). Flowers and Van Noy dropped into coverage, but David Harris, Elandon Roberts and Jones joined Alan Branch and Ricky Jean-Francois in the rush. For the Patriots, that's some crazy stuff, and here's the #BSJFightClub video to prove it:
Green dog blitz (6 of 33): This is a pressure concept the Patriots use with regularity, including in the Super Bowl vs. the Falcons and earlier this season vs. Tampa Bay as a way to keep running backs in the backfield and out of pass patterns. The linebacker assigned to the back in man-to-man coverage rushes the quarterback if the back stays into block.
Basically, Belichick and Matt Patricia decided to get really crazy against the Raiders and turned the players loose. This is what's called "spinning the dial" with pressure concepts. Those who have read me for years know that at some point I say, "The Patriots are getting really comfortable. They're spinning the dial with their pressure and coverage concepts." I mean, they are changing up what they're doing on a nearly down-to-down basis. They spun the dial with pressure against the Raiders, but they haven't turned it loose yet in the secondary (two words: Stephon Gilmore). I expect they will soon, perhaps in another blowout.
The question is, why spin the dial in a rout? Obviously, they're not going to tell me or anyone else outside the locker room. But here the top possible reasons:
Throwing more at the defense: After being a trainwreck for nearly half a season, the Patriots have started to settle in and have mastered the basics (finally). Now it's time to throw more at them to see what they're capable of.
They're going to need all the pressure concepts they can get: Let's be honest, the Patriots regular four-man rush is average at best. The league average for pressure on an opposing quarterback is 34 percent (according to PFF). The Patriots have only cracked that once this season, and that was in Week 4. Nobody's coming in to save the defense (I don't think), so the Patriots may very well find themselves in a spot where they need to manufacture or scheme-up pressure in order to affect the quarterback. Better to try it now to see what works and doesn't before the postseason.
They're getting it on film for future opponents (hello, Pittsburgh): Before the Raiders game, I could probably count on three fingers the number of pressure concepts the Patriots have shown on film this season. Now? We need two hands. That means that a certain black and gold team from Pennsylvania that will play the Patriots in four weeks now has to go from spending about five minutes preparing for New England's pressure packages to many hours. That goes for future postseason opponents as well.
In my opinion, it's all of the above: the players are capable of more and should be pushed; the Patriots' pass rush is so anemic they're going to need all the tools in their chest vs. Ben Roethlisberger and (maybe) Carson Wentz; and it's never a bad thing to have opposing offensive coordinators and line coaches spending more hours preparing for your team because it takes away from their ability to scheme up ways to attack you.
Next stop: Pittsburgh and the postseason.
Here are the positional ratings against the Raiders:
Quarterback (5 out of 5)
Tom Brady’s best performance of the season. There were only two plays you could quibble over: not seeing Danny Amendola open on a crosser when Brady threw incomplete to Brandin Cooks on third down, and a pass behind Rex Burkhead. Other than that, he was flawless. Even that short-hop throw to Cooks on a deep in cut before halftime was the proper pass — Cooks didn’t settle into the zone properly. … Had 10 throws that were outstanding, and then there was the touchdown to Amendola where Brady changed the protection, switched the spots of two receivers to the left, and then twice changed the routes of the receivers on the right, including Amendola. No other quarterback can do that, certainly not a former backup residing in San Francisco.
Running backs (4 out of 5)
Dion Lewis was ridiculous. His nine broken tackles are a Patriots record in my game charting going back to 2009. Quick and decisive, Lewis doesn’t suffer fools when it comes to getting through a hole. Could have run one screen better, but the Patriots are terrible at them anyway. … Rex Burkhead is very lucky Dwayne Allen recovered his fumble, and he had a dropped pass as well. Kept this group from being perfect.
Receivers (4 out of 5)
Almost everyone in this group has some miscue, whether it was Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett (who didn’t seem enthused to block with his shoulder) giving up stuffed runs, Jacob Hollister getting yelled at by Brady or Amendola and Cooks not holding up on pass blocks. And for as great as Cooks was, he also could have handled a screen better after the catch (he’s not a natural at it like Amendola and Julian Edelman) and didn’t settle into a zone the way Brady wanted. That being said, there was a lot of good in this group overall. Even Allen — yes, Dwayne Allen — played his best game as a Patriot.
Offensive line (4.5 out of 5)
Overall a very good outing for this group. But it wasn't perfect, as the pressure and stuff percentages were good but not great. In order of effectiveness: Ted Karras, Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason, LaAdrian Waddle, Cam Fleming. ... Karras continued right where David Andrews left off with a fourth-straight clean sheet (a very minor quibble on a screen) from the center position. Karras isn't as quick as Andrews, but Karras is bigger and stronger, and sometimes this unit needs his extra power. He fit in seamlessly, especially on combination blocks and getting to the second level. He also had this very subtle but definitely purposeful head-bob to get the Patriots a cheap first down on third-and-5. Video:
In general, this was about as cohesive an offensive line performance that we've seen this season. The coup de grace was this Lewis run where the line basically performed like they were listening to the same music. Yes, I love good offensive line play and I LOVED this play.
Defensive line (4 out of 5)
There was only one blown assignment in this group, and that was the blown edge by Cassius Marsh, who was sent back to the bench and then out of town with his release. ... Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise and Lawrence Guy were all terrific in this game. ... The Patriots are going to need a lot more from Alan Branch for this run defense to get up to par for the postseason. The return of Malcom Brown and (possibly from IR) Vince Valentine will help a ton, but Branch was huge for last season's Super Bowl team, and they could really use him to be dominant again. He wasn't bad in this game (like Kansas City), he was just invisible and ineffective. ... Speaking of Wise, check out the hustle on this play. This is why you gotta love the kid.
Linebackers (4.5 out of 5)
David Harris was mediocre — he didn't help much on the Marsh blown edge — but the rest of the group was terrific. ... Van Noy continues to play great football, especially on the edge where he seems to be more comfortable. ... And the emergence of Elandon Roberts the past couple weeks has made that possible. Much more consistent. ... Trevor Reilly and Marquis Flowers had their moments too. Becoming very sound and reliable role players.
Secondary (4 out of 5)
Maybe this is what we're going to get from Malcolm Butler this entire season: some very good plays, and a few where you wonder what he was thinking or doing. Overall, he's still playing good football. ... Jonathan Jones was simply terrific in this game. The best game by any corner this season. ... Stephon Gilmore was very solid, outside a missed tackle. His man coverage skills are excellent. ... The safeties were all on point. Even the 26-yard reception allowed by Patrick Chung was just a great throw and catch.
Jonathan Jones: The best performance by a Patriots' cornerback this season. He was all over the field with tight coverage and physical play. Had two third-down passes defensed, was in coverage on the interception, made the tackle on the fumble and had a hurry. In all, I had him for seven "plus" plays — which is a ton for a cornerback — and zero minus plays.
Dion Lewis: Had him for nine broken tackles, which is a single-game record since I've been tabulating Patriots' stats (going back to 2009). He could have run one screen better, but other than that, he was flawless.
Tom Brady: Had him for 10 plus plays, and only two minus plays — and they were very minor. He didn't see a wide-open Danny Amendola on a deep incomplete pass to Brandin Cooks on third down, and had one poor throw to Rex Burkhead. Other than that, sensational. Best game of the season.
Honorable mention: Stephen Gostkowski, Ted Karras, Dwayne Allen, Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise, Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, Brandin Cooks, Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola.
Cassius Marsh: Played two snaps, gave up the edge on a 25-yard run and went back to the bench.
Cam Fleming: Another week with few snaps (10) and little production (half sack allowed).
Rex Burkhead: Had a fumble and a drop. Not his week.
Dishonorable mention: Martellus Bennett (tackle for a loss), Malcolm Butler (missed tackle, touchdown), David Harris (gap on 25-yard run, missed tackle).