Mon, Oct 14, 2019

We may be watching Bill Belichick paint his masterpiece right before our very eyes. That’s a bold statement when someone with Belichick’s resume is involved, but four weeks through the 2019 season, the coaching GOAT somehow may just have crafted the single greatest defensive unit he’s ever had in New England. 

On Sunday, New England’s incredible back-end coverage smothered yet another helpless offense, limiting the Buffalo Bills to 10 points and flummoxing budding young quarterback Josh Allen until he was knocked out of the game early in the fourth quarter.

The Patriots actually gave up a season-high 375 yards to the Bills (5.3 yards per play) and — gasp — gave up their first defensive touchdown of the season, but in holding Buffalo to 2-of-13 on third down and rendering the Bills helpless in the first half, New England did enough to stave off a valiant second half effort from the Bills.

J.C. Jackson was incredible on Sunday, becoming just the first player since 1989 to record two interceptions and block a punt. Jackson’s punt block would actually be recovered by special teams ace Matthew Slater in the end zone for a score, proving to be the difference in a low-scoring battle. 

Jackson wasn’t the only Patriots defensive back who made history on Sunday, as Devin McCourty became the first player in Patriots history to record an interception in his team’s first four games and the first player in the NFL to do that since 2003. 

Every time you watch a quarterback play the Patriots, there’s what feels like minutes of the quarterback standing in the pocket, looking helplessly downfield at a receiver corps completely covered up by defenders. This wasn’t just a Bills thing — in Week 1, with JuJu Smith-Schuster and a host of other options, Ben Roethlisberger was doing the same thing. Obviously Luke Falk and Ryan Fitzpatrick/Josh Rosen had no answer for the Pats’ smothering coverage. 

On Sunday, it resulted in Allen getting clearly frustrated by the situation and forcing balls down the field. (My colleague Ryan Wilson was in Buffalo on Sunday, so make sure and read his take on it here.) He couldn’t maintain his patience and it cost the Bills in the form of a trio of interceptions. All three of the passes picked off by the Patriots were shots at least 20 yards down the field. Allen was just 1-of-9 on such throws Sunday. 

New England has now allowed just 13 points on 51 drives this season and with another score on Sunday, they are actually in the negative (minus-1) when it comes to net points on the defensive side of the ball. Coming into Week 4, the Patriots were allowing 0.08 points per drive. People will nitpick the opponents involved here, and it’s fair. Pats ain’t played nobody, Paaaaaaawl. More specifically, they’ve gotten a lucky draw with quarterbacks through four weeks. But 1) it’s not like the NFL is trying to help them, and 2) it’s not going to get any harder moving forward, with Dwayne Haskins/Case Keenum/Colt McCoy on the horizon. 

Oh look at that, the Patriots are good again. We’ll find out soon enough what the deal is — Kansas City comes to town in Week 14.

What makes this particular group even more fascinating is Belichick’s recent comment that he doesn’t care about analytics. I’m not going to call Bill Belichick a liar, but if he tells me he doesn’t use analytics, I don’t believe him. (He even said, smiling, “I like math” at the end of his answer. That’s some smart semantics.) 

And the way Belichick built this defense dovetails into analytics. It was recently posited by Pro Football Focus that, to put it very simply, coverage is more important than pass rush. We’ve always seen two schools of thought with respect to this notion. You can minimize coverage time by having a great pass rush. Dave Gettleman built the Carolina PanthersSuper Bowl team that way, drafting Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei to improve the defense attack and going cheap in the secondary. That’s how most teams are built, with an emphasis on paying people up front to get after the quarterback. It works. The Panthers got beat by a Broncos team loaded with pass rushers. Belichick himself was there when Lawrence Taylor changed the league and won Bill Parcells Super Bowls.

But when Belichick went out before the 2017 season and spent huge on Stephon Gilmore, maybe we should have taken a hint. He never let Devin McCourty leave, and he lured Jason McCourty into town. They spent a second-round pick on Joejuan Williams this season. Could the Patriots be the mystery team that offered the Jaguars two first-round picks for Jalen Ramsey? If I had to guess, I would certainly target them as a top choice

The point being is Belichick invested heavily in the Pats secondary, a group that is playing out of its mind right now. As former Pats pass rusher Chris Long pointed out on Twitter, it’s “like stealing” if you’re a defensive lineman for New England right now because of the time you’ve got to get after a quarterback who can’t do anything other than pat the ball and panic.

The Patriots have won a lot of football games, and they’ve had very good defenses before. Building this one, in 2019, with the difficulties of roster construction increasing and an emphasis on offensive performance? It may be Belichick’s greatest work yet.

CMC for MVP

The Carolina Panthers are a very surprising 2-2, having won their second straight road game with a hard-fought victory over the Texans in Houston. It’s surprising because Carolina is currently trotting out Kyle Allen as a replacement for Cam Newton, who is going to be missing for some (more?) time with a foot injury that is apparently a Lisfranc situation. Allen is making a lot of smart plays, but he’s not exactly carrying this team. He’s had five fumbles in two weeks as a starter, just an unacceptable number of times dropping the ball. 

Allen’s turnovers would have probably ruined the Panthers’ day if they didn’t have Christian McCaffrey morphing into a legitimate MVP candidate. McCaffrey, like Alvin Kamara, is a “satellite” back whose size belies his power. McCaffrey and Kamara are the two most fun non quarterbacks to watch in football right now, and with CMC’s 93 rushing yards and 89 receiving yards against the Texans, he’s now up to a whopping 629 yards from scrimmage during his first four weeks of the season.

That talk about reducing his workload before the season? It’s a laugh riot now with the Panthers back in contention despite their franchise quarterback being sidelined. 

McCaffrey has carried the ball more than 20 times in a single game just four times in his career and two of those have come in the last two weeks as Carolina tries to ease the burden on Allen. He is the singular focus of Norv Turner’s offense and it is showing through the first four weeks of the season. 

Carries/Game Receptions/Game Scrimmage Yards/Game TD/Game

CMC 2017-18

10.5

5.8

95.3

0.6

CMC 2019

21.5

6.3

157.3

1.0

His current pace is 2,516 yards from scrimmage, good enough to topple Chris Johnson’s record in 2009. What’s interesting about the most scrimmage yards leaderboard is the presence of some guys who have won the MVP. Barry Sanders (1997), Adrian Peterson (2012), LaDainian Tomlinson (2006) and Marcus Allen (1985) all won the award. Marshall Faulk (1999) could have won but for Kurt Warner, and won the following season. Tiki Barber didn’t win in 2005, but another running back (Shaun Alexander) did. 

McCaffrey joined Jim Brown as the only players in NFL history with three games of 175 scrimmage yards and a score through their team’s first four games of the season. Brown, who did it in 1963, was a three-time MVP winner who somehow didn’t win it that year. Thanks for nothing, Y.A. Tittle. 

There’s been some time elapsed obviously, but just because running backs aren’t likely MVP winners, it’s not out of the realm of possibility when there’s a transcendent season. McCaffrey, a quarter of the way in, is having one of those years. There’s but a handful of players in the NFL with his combination of speed, power and receiving skills.

And the narrative fits too. If Newton is out and the Panthers have to funnel their offense through McCaffrey all season, and if he can actually hold up to this type of usage and if they make a playoff run, you better believe CMC will get some MVP buzz.

It will be well deserved four games in. He’d be on my list right now. 

Patience, people

After a rough start to the season, the Browns‘ bandwagon was threatening to go off the rails before it even left the station. Sunday featured a resounding answer to the critics in the form of a 40-25 bomb dropped on Baltimore by Baker Mayfield and his merry band of misfits.

Not at all inspired by Rex Ryan or by Antonio Brown social media beefs, Mayfield and the Browns offense came out firing against the Ravens, producing the franchise’s first ever game with a 300-yard passer (Mayfield), 150-yard rusher (Nick Chubb) and 150-yard receiver (Jarvis Landry).

Cleveland was only up 10-7 at halftime of this game, but the Browns found another gear pretty quickly. After a Justin Tucker field goal tied things up, Chubb completely took over. 

The power and shiftiness there is something to behold. His speed ain’t bad either; according to Next Gen Stats, Chubb hit 21.95 miles per hour on his third score, the fastest touchdown recorded on the year. 

Freddie Kitchens appeared to find a solution to the problem of cranking out offense by featuring Chubb heavily. Mayfield only attempted 30 passes and was much more efficient and careful with the football. This might have been the signature win of his season, given the importance of it for Cleveland in the grander scheme of the division.

The Browns are now in first place in the AFC North. Say that out loud. 

They have their flaws, just like every other team. I think some of those flaws could eventually be fatal. But at 2-2, with the Steelers reeling and not getting Ben Roethlisberger back and the Bengals largely looking kind of terrible, Cleveland can absolutely steamroll this division still.

Baltimore came out of the gates firing to start the season, but the Ravens lost the last two weeks. 

I expect we’ll have our ups and down with this Browns team, as they’re going to flow like the emotions that come out of Cleveland. But their ability to play at that top level we saw during the second half Sunday is why people liked them be a Super Bowl contender. If the flash can carry over, the Browns could start to get scary.

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