Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 36-20 stomping of the Raiders, a run-heavy rout that carries forward the team’s momentum and could have consequences in the months to come …
Running back by committee gets it done
In each of the first two weeks, the big statements made by the Patriots offense came from New England’s new quarterback. In Week 3, the others in the offensive backfield took over the bullhorn and made their case that teams looking to stop the Pats have to worry about more than merely Cam Newton.
Highlighted by Rex Burkhead’s three touchdowns, Sony Michel’s two long jaunts on the way to a 117-yard day, and J.J. Taylor’s impactful surge in the middle of an important stretch of the second quarter, the Patriots’ running backs answered the critics who had cast doubts on that group after a rough night in Seattle.
The trio did it in the traditional way — combining for 209 yards on 26 carries — and they also added 72 receiving yards, accounting for 281 of the 407 yards the Pats racked up on the afternoon. To further illustrate their impact, consider this: At the half, New England’s lead was just 13-10. From there, the Patriots scored 26 of the next 29 points, and the running backs tallied 156 of the home team’s 209 yards from scrimmage over that span.
The Raiders aren’t exactly the truest test of a running game, seeing as they entered the game giving up an average of 4.9 yards every time an opponent tried to run. But this was absolutely a test for the Patriots’ backs because of the way the position is shaping up internally. Second-year runner Damian Harris, who some projected to have a big role this season, could return from injured reserve as early as next Sunday. James White has missed two consecutive games following a car crash that killed his father and left his mother hospitalized.
The returns of Harris and White are looming — which means snaps will likely be at a premium moving forward, and the touches figure to go to the most productive option. That made Michel’s second-half response to his first-half struggles all the more impressive. Perhaps spurred by Taylor’s performance, he seemed to run with more purpose, and through three weeks it certainly appears as though Taylor has a place as a change-of-pace type. Burkhead remains the member of the group with the most balanced skill set, and it looks as though he and Newton have developed a rapport.
Give the offensive line credit, too. When the offense was struggling to move the chains early, Josh McDaniels twice called for toss plays on third and four, and twice left tackle Isaiah Wynn cleared the route for the runner. Joe Thuney slid from guard to center with David Andrews down, and the unti didn’t miss a beat. All together it was every bit as good as 250 running yards and 6.6 yard per tote would suggest.
Statement made, indeed.
It’s an all-or-nothing defense
Last year’s Patriots thrived on the ability to force turnovers, and with three playmaking linebackers gone among a depleted front seven, there was some doubt the Pats would be able to duplicate that this season. So far, though, New England has done so successfully.
J.C. Jackson and Lawrence Guy both fell on fumbles caused by Adrian Phillips and Chase Winovich in the first half Sunday, then Deatrich Wise Jr. recovered a fourth-quarter fumble in the end zone to complete this week’s hat trick. With those, New England has now forced seven turnovers in the 30 drives against it this season. That’s 23.3 percent of series; last year’s team forced turnovers on 17.3 percent of drives, good for second in the NFL.
The problem, however, is that this Patriots defense is shaping up as an all-or-nothing unit — and when they aren’t prying the ball free they aren’t exactly stopping it, either.
When Las Vegas went the distance in the final seconds of the first half, they scored the seventh touchdown against the Pats this season. Two other drives finished in field goals. That meant opponents had produced points on nine of 25 possessions, which at 36 percent was approaching twice the 19.4 percent rate surrendered by the 2019 squad. Had the Raiders not missed an easy field goal on their first possession of the second half it would’ve been there by the early minutes of the third quarter.
Today’s NFL is one that rewards playmakers, and games tend to hinge on the ability of teams to make big plays. Again, look at last year’s Patriots, and the 12-4 record that belied their talent level, as proof. But if the Pats are going to approach that level again this year, it’s critical that they become more consistent. Turnovers can’t always be counted on every week, especially against the better competition, so a club must be able to get off the field when given the chance. So, to a certain extent, holding the Raiders without a third-down conversion through three quarters was a far better sign for the Pats than the fact they fell on a few fumbles.
The Raiders weren’t ultimately good enough to punish the Patriots — but a week after the offense failed to convert on a final-chance play that could’ve won the game, the New England defense looked sloppy in its situational execution.
Most glaring was the Raiders’ march at the end of the second quarter, which saw them need only four plays and 28 seconds to cover 75 yards before scoring. On that series, Stephon Gilmore got toasted in single coverage, and needed to grab Nelson Agholor to prevent a long reception. Then Jonathan Jones got beat deep, too, giving up the Hunter Renfrow grab that set up a touchdown from inside the one yard line.
Yes, Las Vegas had three timeouts, but the Patriots’ supposedly elite secondary has to keep those receivers in front of them in that situation, when the clock is effectively a 12th defender — and especially after the first play on the drive saw them tackle a Raider in bounds.
That sequence gave away seven points, and when they failed to clean things up at intermission it cost them the ability to control the clock. New England was out of timeouts with 12 minutes to go in regulation because after a penalty extended Oakland’s first drive of the third quarter, the Pats used their first stoppage. They used another timeout on the first play of their next defensive series. Then their third while the Raiders were marching near the start of the fourth quarter. Like the two earlier, the third was burned with the Raiders facing first down.
With no preseason and so many new pieces on the defensive side, some hiccups were to be expected in the early going. And to their credit, the Pats stepped up to the situation in keeping Vegas out of the end zone on three of their first four trips to the red zone. But against a better team — like they’ll face next week — those little failures could come with big consequences.
‘Strapping’ the tight end
If Aqib Talib is to be believed, Bill Belichick was so concerned with the slate of tight ends his team will face this season that he called the veteran cornerback over the summer and offered him good money to come in and defend that position. Talib turned him down, ultimately admitting that he feared the challenge might be too significant.
In explaining that choice, he specifically cited the Raiders’ Darren Waller as one of the tight ends that he wasn’t eager to go up against.
Waller’s 12 catches against the Saints in Week 2 made Talib’s reluctance look justified — but, even without Talib, the Pats’ coaches and cover men deserve tremendous credit for the plan they executed against Waller on Sunday, when he left Foxborough with just two meaningless catches and little impact on the Raiders’ first loss of the season.
The task of “strapping” Waller, to put it in Talib’s parlance, fell to big cornerback Joejuan Williams for stretches. He was called for a couple of penalties, but did an effective job, with the help of linebackers who’d chip the tight end on their way into the backfield. Corners Stephon Gilmore and Jonathan Jones took their turns, too, as did rookie safety Kyle Dugger.
In recent years, since Talib left as a free agent, that task would’ve fallen largely on Patrick Chung. With him having opted out of this season because of coronavirus concerns, he’s unavailable, and so Sunday presented the first opportunity to see how the Pats would respond when confronted by an elite tight end. Next week may present another test altogether, with Travis Kelce waiting in Kansas City.
But credit the Pats — the ones who wanted to take on the challenge — for doing what it took to pass the exam presented Sunday.
Low-key, it’s a big win
It’s only the third week of the season, and the season could go in any number of what seem to be infinite possibilities from here. But, at this point, this has the feel of a big win for the Patriots.
It’s a sign they can take care of business, at home, against a team they should beat.
In the AFC East, it keeps them from falling two full games behind the Bills, who coughed up 29 consecutive points but rallied for a third straight victory on Sunday.
In the conference at large, it gives them a tiebreaker over a team that could easily be in the mix for one of the AFC wild-card spots come season’s end.
And it prevented all of the good tidings created over the first couple weeks from fading away as quickly as it was cultivated.
Next week the Patriots go to Kansas City to face the Chiefs. They’ll be underdogs, and rightfully so. They’ve played the reigning champs tough recently, but for New England to win at Arrowhead would be an upset.
If the Raiders had slipped into Foxborough and stolen a win, there was a real possibility the Pats would reach the season’s quarter point sitting at 1-3. Their momentum would be gone, their belief may be waning, and their chances of another division title would be fleeting fast.
Instead, they didn’t let it get there. Now they can go to Kansas City and confront a challenge against the champs with almost no pressure. They can go in looking to build, rather than looking, in some ways, to survive.
Sunday’s win was a big one — for now, for next week, and maybe for months from now, too.