NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
They don’t award style points in the NFL. The New England Patriots’ 16-9 win over the Oakland Raiders evidenced why.
The Week 3 home opener at Gillette Stadium netted a total of 10 punts between Oakland’s Marquette King and New England’s Ryan Allen. It saw a total of six field goals between Sebastian Janikowski and Stephen Gostkowski. And by the time defensive tackle Vince Wilfork clung onto his third career interception and the Patriots clung onto the victory, every point in the game had been scored by a player whose last name ended in “-kowski.”
Neither backfield crossed the century mark in rushing. Neither passing game threw for over 235 yards. And combined, the offenses of the Patriots and Raiders converted on just one of six red-zone opportunities.
It wasn’t how it was drawn up. It was, however, more of what it has been for head coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots thus far in 2014.
Upon second glance, here are seven observations from Sunday’s tilt.
Though Largely Stagnant, Patriots Commit to the Ground
Heading into the 1 p.m. kickoff, Oakland’s run defense ranked No. 32 in the league with 200 yards allowed per contest. Offenses had run on the Raiders for a tally of 80 attempts over the first two weeks of the season.
The Patriots vied to extend the trend, running the ball 29 times on Sunday. Yet, ultimately, only 83 yards were gained in the process – counting a five-yard jet sweep to wideout Julian Edelman, and discounting three kneel-downs from quarterback Tom Brady.
Coming off a 25-carry, 101-yard game against the Minnesota Vikings, Stevan Ridley remained the workhorse of New England’s rushing committee, but a 19-carry, 54-yard game was his final output. Ridley’s longest rush was nine yards, while 11 of his rushes went for two yards or less.
It was a similar case when Shane Vereen entered for seven attempts and 20 yards, as 11 of which came on one run. And when Brandon Bolden filtered in, two carries for four yards were the byproduct, bringing his season total to eight carries for 12 yards.
Collectively, the Patriots picked up five first downs on the ground.
Offensive Line Shifts, Pressure Continues
New England’s line conceded four quarterback hits by the time the final snap was played on Sunday. Outside linebacker Khalil Mack, drafted fifth overall in May, notched one of them as he ran the edge around left tackle Nate Solder to get Brady in the strike zone.
Those occurrences were not limited to the edge, nor did they dissipate when substitutions were made.
The Patriots made a change in the midst of the second half against Oakland, swapping fourth-round center Bryan Stork into the game and kicking Dan Connolly over to right guard. Those alterations took 26-year-old first-year player Jordan Devey out of the rotation for the duration.
Devey, a member of the 2013 practice squad, was called for a false start on New England’s first series of the third quarter, then was beaten by former New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck on the next play to force a three-and-out.
Devey stayed in the shuffle until Stork entered with 11:15 to go in the fourth. The rookie played the final 15 offensive snaps and appeared to hold up well in pass protection, using his hand replacement to sway Oakland’s defensive tackles away from the point of attack. And in terms of creating lanes for the run, Stork looked comfortable working into the second level when Vereen changed course.
But when the Patriots returned to the air, Oakland returned to pressuring Brady. Defensive tackle C.J. Wilson bull-rushed left guard Marcus Cannon into a parallel position, then sidestepped into the front of the pocket for a second sack. It landed an eight-yard loss.
It remains to be seen if the Patriots can iron out the protection. For now, it remains a significant concern, both outside and in.
New England’s Receiving Corps Looking for Identity
The lack of time afforded to Brady limited what he and the Patriots receivers could do on offense. But it would be remiss to hinge the struggles of New England’s passing game solely on the front five. There were misthrows and misreads on the quarterback’s part when he had the allotted space. And out wide, there were the same constituents finding space to be targeted.
But while Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski continued to get their share of his passes – combining for 13 catches, 130 yards and a touchdown – others did file into the box score.
After seeing the first seven passes thrown his way this season fall incomplete, free-agent acquisition Brandon LaFell caught his first on a four-yard quick screen against the Raiders. While his presence has been felt on special teams and as a blocker, he was able to add 15 more yards on a short post route, 12 on a curl, then on 15 another as Brady eluded pressure and stepped up in the pocket.
But, in a sense, it appears as though New England’s route-runners are still searching for a purpose, and the coaching staff is searching for a purpose for them.
Danny Amendola, who’s recorded three receptions for 16 yards this season, has had three receptions for 60 yards called back by offensive pass interference. Versus Oakland, flags came to fruition as LaFell was penalized for his second pick route involving Amendola.
With the offense transitioning to running personnel, the slot receiver has played fewer total snaps over New England’s last two games than he did in Week 1 alone.
Along those same lines, second-year wideouts Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson have seen their playing time come at each other’s expense. That was on display again Sunday, as Thompkins was active and caught one pass for 16 yards. Dobson, on the other hand, was not.
The undrafted Cincinnati product and the second-round Marshall product have yet to play in the same game this campaign. And traded-for “F” tight end Tim Wright has played a total of 34 snaps through three games, according to Pro Football Focus.
Only five of those came versus Oakland. One of them resulted in a 20-yard gain, as the converted wide receiver arced through the seam and underneath safety Charles Woodson.
It was the Patriots’ second longest pass play of the game.
Vince Wilfork, Dont’a Hightower Stand Apart Up Front
His game-sealing interception is what will be remembered from Sunday’s game, but Wilfork pieced together his most complete performance since tearing his Achilles against the Atlanta Falcons 53 weeks ago.
The 6’2”, 325-pound nose occupied multiple gaps and managed to hold Oakland’s run game in check during short-yardage situations. And after Sealver Siliga exited early on with an ankle injury, Wilfork needed to.
Wilfork, as well as linebacker Dont’a Hightower, solidified New England’s front seven versus the Raiders. And for the 2012 first-round pick, the song has remained the same through the first three weeks of the season. Hightower looked the part coming up as an extra rusher, supporting the run, and delegating coverage responsibilities.
The 6’3”, 270-pound thumper was in on seven tackles and one tackle for loss. He was in on one quarterback hit. And while one of his plays was called back due to holding, he even broke up a pass intended for running back Darren McFadden 30 yards down the field.
Platoon Continues Next to Devin McCourty
Things are fluid at the strong safety position in New England’s defense.
Patrick Chung played 42 snaps versus Oakland, per Pro Football Focus. And behind him, fellow former second-round pick Tavon Wilson stepped in for 15 snaps, while 2013 third-round pick Duron Harmon logged another 12 snaps. All of whom played well in the sample size given next to Devin McCourty against the Raiders offense. Yet, as the fourth week of the regular season fast approaches, seldom do you see a trio of players all taking turns in middle of the secondary.
Wilson has already played more snaps through three games than he did all of last season, and the same can be said of Nate Ebner, who has continued to sub in for linebacker Jamie Collins in the dime defense.
Much has been made of the Patriots putting the best 11 players on the field. Right now, it is difficult to determine just who that is on the back end.
Raiders Wideouts Generate Space vs. Darrelle Revis, Logan Ryan
Raiders receivers worked the intermediate against Patriots starting cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Logan Ryan. And the unit did so primarily by creating separation at the top of routes and working back to the sideline.
Rookie quarterback Derek Carr connected on 5-of-6 passes for 63 yards in Revis’ vicinity, then 5-of-6 passes for 67 yards in Ryan’s vicinity. But, outside of a 29-yard pass to former Patriots wideout Andre Holmes, it was the methodical short throws that moved the sticks for the Raiders.
Along the way, though, Revis and Ryan were responsible for a total of three penalties. However, it could be argued that Holmes pushed off Ryan late on his vertical route late in the fourth rather than vice versa.
That particular call for defensive pass interference cost New England 24 yards. Down seven points with 1:02 remaining, it set up the Raiders at the six-yard line.
Matthew Slater Outlasts Oakland’s Special Teams
Former Patriots linebacker, core special-teamer and three-time Super Bowl champion Matt Chatham made note of Pro Bowl specialist Matthew Slater following a fourth-quarter punt on Sunday.
“I’ve said this many times,” Chatham said via Twitter, “but Matthew Slater is as good at his particular job as any player in the league is at theirs.”
That was illustrated as the Raiders elected to not double-team the gunner at the line of scrimmage throughout the game’s punt returns. Slater, in turn, collected a pair of tackles against the delayed doubles of the Raiders, including a second-effort stop on Oakland’s T.J. Carrie.
“Delaying the double doesn’t work. You have to vice him (2 guys) at the line,” Chatham said of Slater on Monday. “He’s just too good.”
In addition to his efforts tackling return men, Slater also fielded his first return of the season on a fading kick by Janikowski down the right sideline. The third-year captain maneuvered up the field for a gain of 26 yards.
He left his mark in a game that relied on the third phase of it.