There’s a lot to unpack out of this one.
Some might say this is a game for which you would just light the tape on fire and never speak of it again in spite of the victory. For sure, the 38-31 win over the Bears was anything but pretty, but make no mistake, it was still a good win. It was not clean. There were some big gaffes, but the Patriots made big plays in all three phases of the game.
Here are a few thoughts:
• Sony Michel was clearly a major part of the Patriots’ game plan for Sunday. Even with Chicago holding the ball for a large portion of the first quarter thanks to Cordarrelle Patterson’s fumble on a kickoff return, Michel was making a serious impact. He chewed up the Chicago defense in the first drive of the game as the Patriots featured the run and the short passing game. But everything had to change when Michel left the game with what could be a very serious knee injury (MRI still to come). The Patriots adjusted beautifully, thanks largely to James White. White stepped in, as he always does, playing 70% of the offensive snaps, which was by far a season high. In fact, it was closer to 80% after Michel’s injury. Through the air and on the ground, White proved he’s more than a niche back. Kenjon Barner offered support, but it truly was White’s show. He now has 8 total touchdowns through the first seven games of the season, and while the Patriots will surely bring in some backfield help, expect White to get the lion’s share of the playing time.
• Tom Brady is looking like the Tom Brady we have come to expect once again. Since the meltdown in Detroit dropped the team’s record to 1-2, Brady has a rating of 103.5, completing 70.7% of his passes and averaging 308 yards per game and 8.2 yards per attempt. He has 12 total touchdowns to his credit in that four-game span (10 passing, 2 rushing), and while the 5 interceptions he’s thrown are problematic, three of them – the last three, actually – were the result of drops by the receivers. Yesterday, it was fullback James Develin failing to catch a pass cleanly, which allowed the defender to come in and take it away. Clearly, that’s something that needs cleaning up, but with the offense averaging nearly 36 points per game, Brady is clearly the solution and not a part of the problem.
• The Patriots’ offensive line did a pretty outstanding job against the Bears’ front-7. While Khalil Mack was hampered with an injury that had him questionable all week, he’s far from the only one who can do damage on the Chicago defense. Brady was sacked just once, turtling when a screen was blown up instead of trying to force something and taking a big hit. The line allowed just three hits on Brady all day. The Patriots remain among the league’s best in fewest sacks allowed, fewest QB hits allowed, and sack percentage.
• Josh Gordon’s big-play ability was on display Sunday afternoon. His huge 55-yard catch and run in the fourth quarter set up the Patriot’s decisive score, and he also had a big 20-yard catch on a play during which he was interfered with and still made a terrific catch with the defender wrapped around his waist. He did have one drop on what could have been a big-gainer trying to corral a low throw that wouldn’t have been nearly as low had he worked his way back to the ball instead of sitting and waiting for it when he found the hole in the zone. Still, it’s a small thing to nitpick when the guy has made numerous positive contributions and has really helped transform a struggling offense.
• Chris Hogan is now in a more comfortable position for the offense and is doing what he does best – exposing holes in the opposition’s defense. When he’s not a focal point of the offense, Hogan can be very effective, as he has the athleticism to break the big play. He’s just not talented enough to take on and beat top corners. Get him in a favorable matchup and good things can happen. This week and last week are testaments to that. Hogan found space in the zone and didn’t have anyone within 4 yards of him on his catches, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. His ability to play in multiple spots on the field has moved him ahead of Philip Dorsett, who is strictly an outside receiver. Dorsett is obviously squarely behind Gordon, who plays the same position.
• Turnovers continue to be baffling. The Patriots, a year after being among the worst in takeaways, have transformed that aspect of the defense into a strength, recording multiple takeaways for the sixth time this season. Both were tremendous plays – JC Jackson’s rip-away interception on a bad decision by Mitchel Trubisky and Jonathan Jones’ one-handed pick on an underthrown ball. Realistically, the Patriots should have had two more, however, and failed interceptions on the end zone by Elandon Roberts and Stephon Gilmore proved costly. Instead of ending scoring drives, the Patriots surrendered points after those. These are the plays the defense needs to make if the Patriots are going to make a realistic run at a championship. On the other side, the Patriots have committed at least one turnover in each of its first seven games this season and have 14 on the year. It’s hard to fault Michel for his fumble (although I recognize I’m writing for an audience who once criticized Stevan Ridley for not holding onto the ball when he was knocked unconscious), but Cordarrelle Patterson’s fumble was a case of carelessness. Brady’s pick was discussed above. While there are excuses for some of the turnovers, overall, it’s a trend the Patriots surely want to reverse.
• Quarterbacks on the run continue to befuddle the Patriots, and it’s been the guys you wouldn’t really think of as running quarterbacks. Blake Bortles beat the Patriots with his legs several times in the loss to Jacksonville and Trubisky did the same, ripping off some huge runs. The worst was an amazingly embarrassing touchdown on a play where Adrian Clayborn overpursued, missed the tackle, and lost containment, leaving Trubisky free and clear to run back across the field to the end zone. Clayborn has created some good pressure at times and recorded a sack in this game that should have been huge (it wasn’t thanks to Brady’s interception), but too often he loses the edge and allows the quarterback to get free. He’s not alone as Deatrich Wise Jr. has had his bad moments in this area, too, and when the play breaks down, it often seems the Patriots don’t have either the awareness or the team speed to prevent the big gain.
• While the Patriots have done well overall on opposing wide receivers, the pass defense has continued to struggle with backs and tight ends. The 160 yards per game yielded to opposing wideouts is more than adequate, but the Patriots are among the worst in passing yards allowed to backs. Tarik Cohen was the latest example as no one on the Patriots’ defense could match his speed, and the Patriots tried, even putting corners on him. Trey Burton was open over the middle of the field all game long. On average, there wasn’t a defender within 4.7 yards of him, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, and it seemed like a lot more. While Michel’s injury will inevitably create chatter about the need to trade for a running back, the Patriots need to address the speed problem at the linebacker level.
• The last play of the game was obviously a critical one for the defense because it ended the game, but in addition, it illustrated great execution, something that has often eluded the Patriots. As beat writers pointed out, several players talked about how they’re coached on the play – don’t leave your feet (except the one guy in the formation whose job is to jump for the ball; in this case, Gordon) and make the tackle. The Patriots were well-positioned on the play and left no doubt that Kevin White was going to be short of the goal line with a solid gang tackle. Yeah, OK, they gave up a 54-yard pass. The Bears needed 55 to extend the game. The Patriots were willing to cede the meaningless yardage to ensure a win.
• This was a big game for the Patriots’ special teams units, which have been struggling outside of placekicking. Patterson’s fumble was an obvious negative, but his 95-yard return for a touchdown really showcased why the Patriots brought him in. He provides an element the team has not had in recent memory. He is averaging 33.3 yards per return and the team overall is averaging 30.9 yards per return. In 2017, the Patriots averaged 22.2 yards per return. Dion Lewis led the team at 24.8 yards per kick. The last time the Patriots averaged more than 25 yards on returns during the Belichick era? 2018 (25.2). The last time they averaged 30? Never. Specific to this game, Patterson’s return swung the momentum of the game back to the Patriots, who had fallen into a hole after the obviously unfortunate pair of fumbles set the Bears up with scoring drives. The blocked punt was not only well-executed, but a well-timed decision to go after it. Dont’a Hightower, for as much criticism as he’s gotten for having “lost a step,” continues to make impacts. Kyle Van Noy was the one who ultimately made the scoop and score, but there were two or three Patriots who realistically had a shot at the recovery. The Patriots’ kick coverage was also solid. A stop of Benny Cunningham on the Bears’ 16 in the fourth quarter was a big play at that point in the game and would have been considered a big part of the Patriots’ ability to ice it late if not for Kyle Fuller pulling a pass away from James Develin for the interception on the Patriots’ next drive.
(Photo: AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)