Monday, December 7, 2020

Patriots Demolish Chargers 45-0

The Patriots destroyed the LA Chargers yesterday 45-0, their biggest road win since 2007. (Trivia question: Can you name the team they beat and/or the score of the game? Answer below.) The win brings them to 6-6, still 2.5 games back of the division leading Bills (who play tomorrow night) and 2 games out of the playoffs. Next up is the other Los Angeles team, the Rams, on a short week this Thursday.

This game was a clinic of complimentary football. Special teams made four huge plays, scoring twice, the offense used an innovative running game to keep the ball in their hands, and the defense smothered rookie Justin Herbert, intercepting him twice -- his first NFL two-INT game. And all along the coaching was ahead of the Chargers' staff, pouncing on mistakes and letting LA shoot itself in the foot time after time after time.

There isn't as much to pore over in a win this lopsided. But here are five quick observations:

1. Redemption For McDaniels

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has taken some heat this year, and rightfully so. But his game plan was outstanding on Sunday. He used a mix of slant-runs, quick-hit runs, QB option plays, and even some Wildcat (with quarterback Cam Newton in motion) to confuse and wear out the Chargers defense. However, most important was that those plays were productive.

The first drive was over 7:00 long and ended with points. And no matter how many players LA committed to stop the run, they couldn't do it effectively enough to force the Pats to abandon their game plan. 43 carries for 165 yards and 2 TDs on the ground speaks for itself.

Nicely done, Josh.

2. Spectacular Special Teams

Gunner Olszewski returned a punt 70 yards for a touchdown and another one 61 yards (which led to a field goal). Cody Davis blocked a field goal and Devin McCourty returned it 44 yards for a touchdown. Punter Jake Bailey kicked four times, three of which were downed inside the 20 yard-line. Justin Bethel had three tackles on special teams and saved a punt from the end zone (which was downed at the 5 yard-line by Davis).

Additionally, the kicking units drew penalties against the Chargers, including a 12-man penalty on a quick-snap that got the Pats a first down. This wasn't by accident; LA is known to have bad special teams. No doubt the Patriots spent extra time on them this week, knowing they could spell the difference in the game.

They did.

3. Bill Belichick Versus Young QBs

Most young quarterbacks are confused the first time they play a Belichick-led defense. I haven't updated this stat in a while, but he has something like 90% wins against quarterbacks in their 8th - 15th starts in the NFL, which is right where the Chargers' Justin Herbert was. It also explains how the Patriots held back Kyler Murray and Arizona last week -- he was making his 27th NFL start and facing a BB defense for the first time.

This won't help much this Thursday; Jared Goff is in his fifth season and has played the Patriots before.

All of which is to say please don't overreact to the last two weeks. Those wins were predictable; the real season begins now!

4. Youth Being Served

Rookies making an impact:
  • Linebacker Josh Uche has a motor that won't stop and hits hard
  • Safety Kyle Dugger has 29 tackles on the year and is seeing increased playing time
  • Tackle Mike Onwenu is solidly a starter and well-rated by Pro Football Focus
Second-year players making an impact:
  • Running back Damien Harris is the team's leading rusher with 641 yards on 126 carries (5.1ypc) and 2 touchdowns
  • Receiver Jakobi Meyers leads the team with 38 catches and is a solid route-runner and blocker downfield
  • Defensive End Chase Winovich gets better every week and made two impact plays yesterday
  • Receiver/returner Olszewski not only had three great returns in the last two games, he had a long touchdown catch-and-run
  • Fullback Jakob Johnson's blocking is excellent and he is now working into the occasional short-passing game
  • Linebacker Terez Hall is helping shore up the thin linebacking corps
For a team with so many holes, they are filling many of them with younger players this year. If 2020 is a bridge year, then the future across that bridge looks bright -- if they can get the QB situation settled.

5. Blueprint For The Playoffs?!?!

I know, Jim Mora would have torn my head off for saying the P-word. But if the Pats do somehow make the playoffs, they will likely face a gauntlet of road games against teams like Kansas City and/or Pittsburgh.

The advantage they have is that crowd noise won't be as big a factor with smaller crowds (or no crowds) at stadiums because of COVID-19. Also, teams that play sound fundamentals, are good on defense, and can get a few plays on special teams -- those teams often do well on the road, even in the playoffs.

Earlier this year the Patriots likely would have beaten Kansas City in KC if their quarterback hadn't contracted the coronavirus. And the Steelers in Pittsburgh has never scared the Patriots; they've won two Super Bowls after beating the Steelers on the road in the playoffs.

They'll likely need more from the passing game if they expect to even make the playoffs. And they have the next six games to figure that out. One note of optimism; supposedly Julian Edelman could be back in a week or two, which could only help the offense.

Where does that leave us? The needle is pointing up at the right time. Newton has shown a good rapport with both Damiere Byrd and Meyers, as well as James White out of the backfield. McDaniels' challenge now is figuring out how to incorporate more passing without risking the run game or a loss (the Patriots can't afford one).

Biggest on-going concern: Lack of explosive plays on offense. The creative game plan from Sunday shows they can win without chunk plays in the passing game. But as they head down the stretch their margin for error is as small as their biggest plays.

It's great to get huge returns or blocked kicks for touchdowns. That doesn't mean the Patriots want to count on that every week.

Non-QB MVP: the toughest call of the year, but the award goes to special teams ace Justin Bethel, who was integral to the blocked field goal, had big blocks on both of Olszewski's long returns, had three special teams tackles, and made a play to down a punt inside the five yard-line.

Could have been a lot of people (Olszewski himself, for example), but Bethel gets the nod.

Statistical oddity: I've never seen a team be so horrific on fourth down in my life. Here is the astonishing futility of LA on fourth downs:
  • Missed field goal
  • Punt returned for touchdown
  • False start penalty from punt formation
  • Blocked field goal returned for touchdown
  • Interception
  • 61-yard punt return
  • Sacked for 9 yards
  • Incomplete pass
  • Incomplete pass
Add in that they had 12 men on the field on a Patriots fourth-down punt, which gave the Pats a first down, and their failures on fourth down become legendary. Just awful!

Water-cooler wisdom: "Belichick is so awful at talent evaluation that he has nine major contributors from the last two drafts."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 6-6!

PPS. Trivia Answer: the Patriots beat the Bills 56-10 in November of 2007, a 46-point win that eclipses the 45-pointer from yesterday.