Pick Six: Observations from Game Sixteen
New England bullied the New York Jets 38-3 at Gillette stadium to end the regular season. The Patriots’ passing offense bounced back from two underwhelming games against the Steelers and Bills to overmatch a depleted Jets’ secondary. This final game turned out to be the only time quarterback Tom Brady threw four touchdown passes in a 2018 regular season game.
Six Observations from Game Sixteen
1. Tom Brady looked much better in game 16 (73% completions thrown) than he did in game 15 (54% completions). In possible related news, Brady targeted receivers Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett a total of 16 times against New York after not targeting them at all the previous week. Brady’s 2nd quarter touchdown to Dorsett – when his first read was covered, Brady escaped pressure in the pocket, and delivered a perfect strike in the corner of the end zone – showed vintage Brady patience and field awareness.
2. On Brady’s eleven attempts to Chris Hogan, three were overthrown and incomplete, including one when Hogan was alone in the center of the end zone in the 2nd quarter, and one when the ball was thrown between three defenders deep down field in the 3rd. The other two incompletions came off a bat-down when Marcus Cannon’s cut block failed to get linebacker Brandon Copeland on the ground, and a drop by Hogan on what would have been a tough catch, deep up the right sideline. Of Hogan’s six receptions, the most impressive was a double move against starting cornerback Buster Skrine that got the receiver open for a 20 yard catch along the left sideline. For those keeping score at home, that was another strong pass Brady threw deep to his left side.
3. How bad was it for the New York offense? Of their 12 possessions, only three drives went longer than 24 yards, and those three sustained drives resulted in one field goal and two failed 4th down conversions. In the process, Patriots Jonathan Jones, Trey Flowers, and Adam Butler all forced fumbles that were recovered by the home team. Butler’s came on a strip sack of quarterback Sam Darnold – one of four sacks on the day – which Kyle Van Noy returned 46 yards for a touchdown. Van Noy ended the fortunate scoop and score with a “look at me” moment, as he turn around and fall backwards into the end zone.
4. New England’s first three games in December saw the defense allow Minnesota, Miami, and Pittsburgh an average of 7.5 yards per rush, well over those offenses’ seasonal average of 4.4 yards per carry. Over the final two games of the season, the Patriots’ held the Bills and Jets (4.3 yards per) to essentially their annual average (4.1 yards per). The “improvement” in the run defense could be due to more disciplined technique by the players or simply the result of two below average opponents just playing to end the season.
5. There were two notable personnel changes over the last two games for the defensive front seven. First, defensive end Adrian Clayborn has been a healthy scratch, resulting in Deatrich Wise and Derek Rivers taking on more playing time. Second, defensive tackle Danny Shelton – who had been a healthy scratch against Minnesota, Miami, and Pittsburgh – has played one-third of the defensive snaps in the final two games. Shelton’s return to the field has lightened the work load some for Lawrence Guy and Malcom Brown on the inside. Shelton came up big in the 2nd quarter when he blew up guard Brian Winters to help Lawrence Guy and linebacker Elandon Roberts make a third down stuff of Jets running back Elijah McGuire.
6. New England’s personnel groupings of defense – the number of front line vs. back line players – has been pretty consistent over the past five games. Their corners and safeties have made up between 46% and 53% of the players on the field, with no discernable trend (snap count data from Pro-Football-Reference.com). For the cornerbacks, J.C. Jackson has seen his playing time increase while Jason McCourty’s has decreased significantly. Before anyone jumps to the conclusion that J.C. Jackson is now the other “starter” with Stephon Gilmore, it would be good to remember that Jason McCourty was sidelined during the preseason, putting the younger players on the field. We’ll see how much faith the coaches have in individual cornerbacks once the playoffs start for the Patriots.