If one needs any more proof that the New England Patriots are a work in progress, their tight 16-9 win over the hapless Oakland Raiders is a fitting illustration. While the Patriots’ resiliency on the day was encouraging, it is clear there remains plenty of work before New England comes close to peaking.
The Patriots have made a troubling habit of slow starts. They allowed Oakland to dominate time of possession for the vast majority of the first half, failing to put together any sustained drive until midway through the second quarter.
However, the Patriots soon got rolling offensively with two consecutive long drives to take a 10-3 halftime lead. Strong running from Stevan Ridley and Tom Brady’s steadily improving accuracy allowed the Pats to control the clock and stem the Raiders’ early momentum.
Defensively, New England sustained the one-gaping 4-3 principles from last week, even as Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich continue to line up as outside linebackers. The scheme continues to stymie opposing running games, as the Patriots continued to show excellent gap discipline in allowing just three yards per carry on the afternoon.
While the game never really slipped away from New England, the Pats also had disturbing issues in closing out the contest, particularly in terms of finishing offensive drives.
New England had a pair of long second-half drives stall out in the red zone, failing to exploit a tiring Raiders defense. In particular, untimely pressures sabotaged numerous drives, with the offensive line issues cropping up again in the second half.
The defense also showed signs of cracking toward the end of the game, though it received the biggest break of the day on Vince Wilfork’s game-clinching interception. Indeed, while the Patriots did not intimidate rookie quarterback Derek Carr, sound fundamentals placed a firm cap on Oakland’s offensive production, allowing New England to compensate for less-than-stellar offensive execution.
Tom Brady: Tom Brady’s timing remains off with every wide receiver besides Julian Edelman. The Patriots opened up their playbook a bit more on Sunday with more perimeter throws and a more liberal use of play-action seam routes, but on the day, Brady still finished with just 6.3 yards per attempt.
The most prominent issues were near the goal line. On one sequence, Brady missed a pair of throws from the 2-yard line—one to Rob Gronkowski, the second to Danny Amendola—that could have created the two-possession lead the Pats never enjoyed.
While this may sound like a broken record, not all of this is Brady’s fault. The offensive line regressed after last week’s stellar protection, perhaps as a byproduct of the Patriots calling more deep-drop pass calls. And while Brady’s accuracy did improve as the game went on, he was fortunate not to throw his first interception of the season, as Charles Woodson and Miles Burris both had their hands on multiple passes.
It was also interesting to see New England move away from the screen game. Apart from an third-down screen to Brandon LaFell on the first drive, the Pats never attempted any of those passes. While Brady was able to complete 24 of 37 passes nonetheless, the routes did not seem to emphasize the receivers’ yards-after-catch ability.
It’s unclear if New England’s static passing game will improve in the immediate future. While Gronkowski will continue to see his snaps slowly elevated, it looks unlikely that any receiver outside of Edelman will emerge as a consistent target. Until Brady begins to trust an option outside Edelman, Gronk or Shane Vereen, the Patriots’ passing game will remain limited. (**)
Running Back: Stevan Ridley started the game hot, thriving on outside zones in the first half. But the holes largely disappeared after halftime, as Oakland’s linebackers (particularly Khalil Mack) did a much better job of creating penetration. As such, New England finished with just 76 yards on 32 carries, a paltry 2.4 yards-per-attempt average.
The Patriots abandoned last week’s prominent personnel package, in which they featured six offensive linemen and a fullback to create an imposing power look. Instead relying on their starting five plus Rob Gronkowski, the Pats had less success trying to run out of three-receiver sets, something they have generally thrived upon in the past.
Part of that may stem from Gronk’s still-improving health, but being able to run from Posse/11 (3 WR, 1 RB, 1 TE) personnel has been an important weapon for the Pats. Perhaps Shane Vereen, who received just seven carries on the day, will see more looks on the ground going forward from those packages.
The second half should not totally dim what had been three consecutive excellent halves for this unit, but it is troubling that the Patriots were not able to close out the game on the ground. New England was fortunate that its intermediate passing game was clicking for much of the second half, as the running game was unable to burn any time off the clock.
Ridley and Vereen are talented runners, but neither is elusive enough to constantly dodge tackles and improvise by bouncing runs far to the outside a la LeSean McCoy. While it is unfair to solely pin the blame for the static second half on the backs, the running game undeniably took a step back in Week 3. (*1/2)
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends: Julian Edelman continues to carry the load for this unit. Edelman recorded 10 of New England’s 24 receptions on the day, and his 84 yards accounted for roughly one-third of Brady’s total passing yardage.
Josh McDaniels was more creative in the routes Edelman ran, allowing him to catch Oakland off guard with more out-breaking perimeter routes (comebacks, outs, etc.). It seems wise to limit the number of hits Edelman takes over the middle, especially if the Pats are going to continue relying on No. 11 as the top option on virtually every passing play.
Brandon LaFell also took a step toward becoming the No. 2 receiver, though he does not remain a particularly convincing long-term solution. LaFell’s four catches and 46 receiving yards were second-highest on the team behind Edelman, with the Pats utilizing the veteran on some play-action seam routes.
But LaFell also had yet another offensive pass interference on a pick play, the third consecutive week the Pats have been penalized on that play. All three times, the offensive penalty has sabotaged drives, so the Patriots either need to rectify this issue immediately or strike the option from the playbook altogether.
Danny Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins also continue to disappear from the rotation, with the two combining for just one reception on the day. With how limited the Patriots’ passing options are at the moment, do not expect either player to receive many targets going forward.
Ultimately, Rob Gronkowski remains the biggest variable toward goosing New England’s offense. Gronk continued to make a red-zone impact with his six-yard touchdown catch, but until he remains an equally viable option between the 20s, New England will be extremely limited. (*** to ***1/2)
Offense Line: After a promising showing against in Week 2, this unit took a decisive step back on Sunday. Nate Solder struggled mightily to contain Mack on outside rushes, allowing Oakland’s first-round rookie to constantly pressure Brady and blow up stretch-running plays.
More importantly, the interior troika of Marcus Cannon, Dan Connolly and Jordan Devey struggled with consistency. The breaking point came in the fourth quarter, as Devey went to the bench in favor of Bryan Stork, who kicked Connolly over to right guard. Given how poorly Devey has played throughout the preseason and start of the regular season, expect Stork to remain in the lineup to start next week.
It appears agility is a significant problem for this group, as Oakland’s “NASCAR” speed-rushing defensive line packages gave New England fits. Justin Tuck in particular abused Cannon and Connolly as an interior rusher, recording one sack and three quarterback hits.
Relying on nothing but three-step dropback passing concepts is going to paralyze New England’s offense at some point, so the urgency is growing with this unit. Continuity must develop at some point, so whether that includes keeping Stork or adding in someone like Josh Kline, the Pats still need to settle on a starting five they trust to develop, even if some struggles ensue. (*)
Vince Wilfork was the Patriots’ MVP in this victory, playing nearly wire-to-wire after Sealver Siliga’s early injury. The 32-year-old captain also came up with the game-winning interception after the ball ricocheted off Denarius Moore and Logan Ryan.
After many questioned Wilfork’s reliability following Achilles surgery, the defensive tackle has demonstrated vintage form in bearing a heavy workload through the first three games.
Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich also played more of a straight rushing role, the reason I have moved both here after having them in the linebacker category last week. Despite failing to record a sack, Jones was disruptive in shooting gaps against the running game and batting down a pair of passes. Expect the final metrics to come in favorably after film review.
Chris Jones and Joe Vellano saw more extended run because of Siliga’s injury. Give credit to both for holding up relatively well in the running game, as both have been severe liabilities in the past. But Oakland never took advantage of New England losing its most natural nose tackle, a credit to the two second-year defensive tackles.
The Patriots are extremely well-equipped at this position, though the depth at the edge remains tenuous, especially with Michael Buchanan just now making his regular-season debut.
First-rounder Dominique Easley was also conspicuously invisible after playing well in Minnesota last week. Still, between the trio of Jones, Ninkovich and Wilfork, the Patriots have three steady foundational players to anchor the trenches.
Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower carried the flag for this unit, as both were constantly hovering around the ball in helping the Patriots control the middle of the field.
Mayo continues to be New England’s best run-stuffer, ably diagnosing and filling in gaps from a variety of angles. After tearing his pectoral last year, Mayo’s healthy return has been the primary reason why the Patriots have yet to miss Brandon Spikes.
Hightower did not rush nearly as frequently as he has through the first two weeks, but he also was more impressive in coverage. His best play of the day was a pass breakup in the end zone on what appeared a sure touchdown for Darren McFadden, an effort nullified by a holding penalty on Logan Ryan.
Nevertheless, both linebackers delivered authoritative hits in the middle hook zones, disabling Oakland from moving the ball between the seams on easy hook and drag routes. Consequently, Derek Carr generally looked toward the flats for his checkdowns, allowing the Patriots to pursue and pin along the sidelines.
Jamie Collins returned after missing the Week 2 contest with a thigh injury, but the Pats limited his snap total and did not ask him to cover versatile fullback Marcel Reece. Collins appears fine, so expect New England to increase his workload next week against the Kansas City Chiefs’ prominent two-back and two-tight end packages.
After suffocating the Minnesota Vikings’ downfield passing game last week, Darrelle Revis and Logan Ryan appeared much more vulnerable against a ho-hum Raiders receiving corps.
Revis allowed receptions on five of his six targets, including a critical back-shoulder completion to James Jones on Oakland’s final drive. Though No. 24 did not concede any particularly impactful plays besides that catch, it was still jarring to see Carr attack the former All-Pro with such ease.
Ryan’s struggles were significantly more pronounced. Ryan had issues with the size of Rod Streater and Andre Holmes, as both big Oakland receivers were able to shake off his press coverage and get open along the perimeter. In addition, Ryan committed a critical pass-interference penalty on the final drive that moved the Raiders inside the 10-yard line, though Wilfork would bail him out shortly thereafter.
Carr rarely challenged the Patriots downfield, but when he did, Oakland found some success. Devin McCourty was not particularly visible on the day, so it is difficult to assign blame to the Patriots’ free safety for some of the Raiders’ biggest gains.
On the bright side, Patrick Chung demonstrated uncharacteristically solid coverage, especially on Reece. Chung is not usually a part of New England’s sub-package personnel, but with increased reps in that role this week, the sixth-year veteran appears firmly ahead of Duron Harmon and Tavon Wilson on the safety depth chart.
There still is not much reason to worry about this unit. Although Revis and Ryan did not bring their best games, the Patriots are still avoiding the chunk plays that have plagued the defense in years past. (***1/2 to ****)
Special Teams: Stephen Gostkowski continued his perfect season with three chip-shot field goals, while Ryan Allen again had a field position-flipping punt, this time of 58 yards. The kicking game is among the most reliable units on New England’s roster, especially with Gostkowski’s virtually automatic touchback rate.
Oakland did a nice job of not allowing Edelman many return opportunities, as he recorded just seven yards on a single punt return. Matthew Slater had a nice 26-yard kick return when the Raiders strangely decided to kick short, setting up a field-goal drive in the second half.
Overall, it was a relatively innocuous afternoon for this unit. The big plays and unusual circumstances were few and far between, a credit to the sound special teams execution from both sides. (****)
Coaching Staff: Bill Belichick did not shake up much of last week’s game plan, especially on defense. New England blitzed more frequently in Week 3, likely noting Carr’s struggles when pressured. While the rookie was flushed from the pocket a few times, give the Oakland quarterback credit for avoiding the big mistake when pressured.
Offensively, McDaniels was well-intentioned in calling a greater variety of pass routes, even if the results were not necessarily impressive. The Patriots did a nice job of keeping Oakland honest through their commitment to the run, so it was encouraging to see McDaniels not stray away from the ground game as he has a tendency to do.
Belichick’s decision to insert Stork into the starting lineup was long overdue, however, considering how consistently Devey has struggled throughout the preseason and first two weeks. It remains puzzling to see Devey stay on the active roster over Josh Kline, much less start.
Nonetheless, Belichick has transformed the defense after a rough opening week, and the offense’s struggles appear more personnel-related than scheme-based. The coaches still need to decide on an offensive line combination, but otherwise, it is hard to find much to complain about. (***3/4)
Final Thoughts: The Patriots most certainly did not play their best, as the killer instinct they demonstrated last week was absent. But while allowing Oakland to hang around for 60 minutes might appear discouraging, it is also not especially shocking given the state of New England’s roster.
Indeed, New England is very much a work in progress. Overreaction will likely be rampant, but there is no need to panic and overhaul the offense. The Patriots still have promising personnel, and while that truth has an expiration date, we need to allow more than three weeks for those pieces to jell together.
The Patriots pride themselves upon peaking in the season’s second half. While there is no magic formula that will cause New England to snap its fingers and turn into a well-oiled machine come winter, Pats fans would do well to maintain some perspective in characterizing the team’s issues. For now, another notch in the win column is nothing to scoff at.