Curran: Jets rout a key turning point for McDaniels, Patriots offense originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Josh McDaniels is on a heater. The longtime Patriots offensive coordinator -- whose play-calling sometimes causes our six-state region’s mood to turn pitch black -- lit the fire that turned into the Patriots' 54-point inferno Sunday against the Jets.
Yes. It was the Jets. For the 3,400th time since Sunday at 4 p.m., we acknowledge that the Jets are trash. But nobody was talking about the likelihood of a 41-point win when Sunday dawned, were they?
The Patriots talked the talk of a good team all week with their “We’re 2-4 but we don’t feel 2-4 …” affirmations. But the best they’d shown from their offseason roster improvements were two entertaining Ls.
The Patriots needed more than words. And McDaniels helped deliver them. The Patriots' possessions against the Jets went touchdown, touchdown, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, field goal, punt, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown. Ten possessions. Seventy possible points. They got 54.
It got that way because McDaniels was able to -- to borrow a phrase from the running game -- coach downhill. And that was possible because he trusted the offensive line (Isaiah Wynn, Ted Karras, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Mike Onwenu) was healthy and cohesive enough to deliver.
So McDaniels could untether Mac Jones a little more on early downs, dial up long-developing trick plays and feel confident that Jones wasn’t going to get sawed in half as he nearly was the week before against Dallas when Yodny Cajuste couldn’t handle Randy Gregory on the right side.
Remember, McDaniels and the offense were hot then too. The Patriots scored on their first two drives against the Cowboys and were knocking on the door again until a touchdown got called back and Mac got wrecked on a strip sack. After that, the Patriots punted on four straight possessions and didn’t even try to move downfield with their last possession before the half.
The key to this Patriots season -- as we’ve all noticed by now -- is going to be their offensive line. They have enough at running back, tight end, wide receiver and quarterback to compete with anyone. They’ve shown that. But they can’t dip into that bag if they can’t be sure Jones will be protected.
Sunday was a watershed game for the Patriots in a couple of ways. First, the offensive line earned trust. Second, because of that trust, the Patriots were able to run a half-closing drive with Jones that went 11 plays and 72 yards in 1:32. Jones had to manage clock, take checkdowns and convert a fourth-down after a trick play went awry. Protection wasn’t a concern.
What else from Sunday? Here ya go ...
The Patriots threw on 17 of their first 25 first-down plays Sunday (that was by the midpoint of the third quarter). They came out similarly against Dallas, throwing on five of their first seven first-down plays and scoring two touchdowns. But once Jones got strip-sacked, the Patriots ran on seven of their next eight first-down plays.
The conclusion? McDaniels would like to open it up and be a little more diverse on first down but he doesn’t want Jones to get smushed. So if he doesn’t trust the protection, he’s going to lean on Damien Harris.
Interestingly, the Patriots weren’t even that effective throwing on first down in the early going. Jones was 3-for-7 for four yards on first downs late in the second quarter. But he was dialed in on third down in the second quarter, especially with three third-and-long conversions on one drive (including a 13-yard scramble.
Jonnu Smith was a major focal point of the early game plan.
Ever since his rash of drops and bad plays against the Saints, it felt like Smith was a little bit in his own way. Even though, when asked about Smith earlier in the week, Bill Belichick snorted at the idea of banging the ball to one player, that is most definitely something the Patriots do.
When Brandon LaFell was here in 2014, Tom Brady would routinely target him with his first throw to get him into the game. On Sunday, Smith handled the ball on three of the Patriots first four plays. The best play he had was a tight end screen in the second quarter that gained 24 on his sixth opportunity to handle the ball.
Smith wound up hurting his shoulder and left the game but Sunday should be a good boost for his confidence.
Early in the week, Belichick said the Patriots wouldn’t see a defense that played harder than the Jets. He didn’t say smarter. He said harder.
It was clear right out of the chute that the Patriots were going to use the Jets aggressiveness against them with draws, screens and gadget plays, all of which were unveiled on the first two drives.
Belichick talked about that, noting, "Josh does a great job of mixing plays in to take advantage of the defense's over-aggressiveness, whether it's pursuit or run force or whatever it happens to be."
The key to Kendrick Bourne’s touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor on the first drive was Onwenu’s cut block on the right end of the line. Absolutely perfect.
Why was Damien Harris able to run at will through massive holes in the middle of the Jets defense? Because the penetrating style created creases and the Patriots -- who haven’t run wide in weeks -- exploited that.
If they had been running wide and outside the tackles, then they may have had issues. But the days of running anywhere other than up the gut are on ice for now.
The Patriots are averaging 6.70 yards per carry on 23 runs over right guard (second in the NFL). They have run 56 times up the middle (fifth) with a meager YPC of 3.11(26th) but they are getting 5.27 on 26 carries over left guard (fifth). Running over either tackle or outside the left end, the Patriots are 27th, 26th and 32nd in YPC.
Brandon Bolden, who had not had an inspiring start to the season as a running back, made a heap of plays in the passing game filling James White’s role. Bolden had six catches for 79 yards and caught a touchdown off a short flip from Jones in the second quarter.
That rookie Rhamondre Stevenson was inactive for the game caused a stir but, going against a Cover-3 style defense, it’s understandable why the Patriots wanted to have their pass-catching backs -- Bolden and J.J. Taylor -- ready to go.
Not that Stevenson can’t catch. McDaniels talked last week about what a natural receiver Stevenson is. But the running back position he plays and the one that White or Taylor plays aren’t really the same one.
And while there are still Cam Newton Truthers out there wondering why the Patriots moved on from him, the fact is you could lock Cam in the stadium all day trying that throw Jones made to Bolden and he couldn’t pull it off. Nor could Drew Bledsoe, for instance.
That Jones has that in his bag and the confidence to feather it out there at this point in his career? Impressive as hell.
Christian Barmore and Deatrich Wise are quietly having very, very good seasons up front.
The Jets got their posteriors handed to them coming off a bye week. The Patriots will see another team coming off its bye this Sunday when they play the Chargers.
Having faced Dak Prescott and Tom Brady, the Patriots are at least prepared for a top-tier quarterback like Justin Herbert. But, just as this Jets blowout was a big and necessary moment for this year’s model, playing on the road against a quality opponent coming off its bye is just as important.