By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots defense makes game-changing plays because it has playmakers at all three levels.
Outside of Golden Tate's fluky 64-yard touchdown, just the third allowed all season by the defense, the unit had yet another overwhelming effort against rookie quarterback Daniel Jones and his limited weapons. Their biggest moment came in the fourth quarter with the Patriots only up seven in a game where a lot of weird stuff had been happening.
It felt like the Giants could have pulled off another miracle play to tie the game back up - and then Jamie Collins put that to rest.
First, pressure up the middle from defensive tackle Adam Butler and a safety blitz by Duron Harmon rushed Jones' screen pass to Jon Hilliman. The running back had to leave his feet to make the catch, giving Collins an extra half-second to close on him and jar the ball loose with his helmet. Devin McCourty sniffed out the loose ball and dug it out of the pile, and Kyle Van Noy did the rest with his dive to the pylon that officials later called a touchdown after initially ruling him out of bounds.
"I knew I was in bounds the whole time, I knew it was a touchdown," Van Noy said after the game. "Refs needed the extra look. That’s OK."
Another exemplary team effort came on John Simon's first-quarter interception. The former Colts outside linebacker has had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, with 15 tackles, two sacks, three QB hits, four pass breakups at the line of scrimmage, and now an interception to his credit. He made an alert play to track the ball into his hands after Stephon Gilmore deflected Jones' pass straight up and blocked Golden Tate from recovering it.
All three levels. Playing together.
"We’ve been able to be productive on Sundays, but we just have to continue to do so," said Simon. "With the interception it was because Steph [Gilmore] was able to deflect it in the air. It’s everyone just playing off each other and playing as one."
"We have to continue to do so" is a sign that the defense is still not buying into its own hype. Surely Bill Belichick replayed the Tate touchdown over and over in the film room. The head coach continually talks up opposing offenses, no matter how futile the teams are.
But there's no question that the defense is playing at an elite level regardless of competition. It's because they have talent at all three levels, they're all on the same page, and they all work in concert to make plays.
“We are alright, it is still early and I still have to learn from my mistakes in areas that we didn’t do well but I think we will be pretty good," said Gilmore. "It is fun, if one person makes a play then everyone is excited, there are no selfish squares, everyone is just happy for one another.”
Playing as one.
More final thoughts on the Patriots' 35-14 win over the Giants...
Kicking Woes Affect Play-Calling
The Patriots' kicker situation is likely going to be a tenuous one for the rest of the season. But it would be hard to believe if they moved forward calling games the way they had to on Thursday night for much longer.
Eschewing new kicker Mike Nugent, the Patriots passed on field goals of 47, 50, and 54 yards to go for it on fourth down three times. They also passed up a 37-yard gimme to try a fourth-and-1 run with Sony Michel, which was unsuccessful. Despite the struggles of Stephen Gostkowski before hitting injured reserve, there's little doubt that Belichick would have at least tried the 47- and 50-yarders with No. 3.
Nugent doesn't have the leg for those kinds of kicks, especially not on a windy night like Thursday. And he couldn't make up for a bad hold by Jake Bailey, either, when he missed a 40-yard field goal.
The Patriots tend to go for it on fourth down a lot anyway, but bypassing field goal attempts on fourth-and-5 and fourth-and-7 was telling. Would Belichick really want to approach games the same way for another 10 games, and especially in January?
Gilmore Reasserts Himself
Stephon Gilmore gave up a little more than we're used to seeing in his first five games of 2019. Some of that was likely by design, such as the cushions he gave Redskins receiver Terry McLaurin in Week 5 in order to prevent the rookie from burning him for a long touchdown. But has Gilmore been at the same All-Pro level that he was at in 2018?
He certainly was on Thursday night. Just one catch allowed against the Giants with an interception and four pass breakups, one of which led directly to Simon's pick. Per Pro Football Focus, Gilmore's season grade leaped from 62.9 to 73.8 with the superlative effort.
"Yeah, Steph, he does it every day in practice and does it on Sundays," said Belichick. "He does such a great job playing the ball and had some good breaks.
"I mean, look, he's a very talented player and works extremely hard to prepare for the game, study his opponents and study the passing game that our opponents are going to run. This is a good example here on a short week of how diligent he works and it paid off. He's done a great job for us."
How Involved Is Belichick In Offense?
A report from ESPN's Mike Reiss got me thinking. Belichick has taken on a larger role in coaching the defense after the departure of multiple defensive coaches, including 2018 play-caller Brian Flores, and the addition or elevation of less experienced coaches like Jerod Mayo. It's pretty clear how hands-on Belichick has been with the defense, which has been absolutely dominant.
But has it come at the detriment of the offense? Belichick's oversight of the defense is an indication that most of the responsibility for the offense - and its inconsistency early in the season - falls on offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
The talent on the field is obviously an issue, particularly with the blocking up front. Second-year pro Ryan Izzo has worked hard to grow into a regular role at tight end, but he's simply not getting the job done as a blocker, especially in the run game.
Yet can you really blame Izzo for taking a 1-on-1 assignment against an edge rusher, which few tight ends would be able to handle? Can you blame him or left tackle Marshall Newhouse, who is now on his seventh NFL team, for McDaniels calling a pitch to the outside on third-and-3? The Giants' Lorenzo Carter blew Izzo up for the second time in the game - the first being on Brady's fumble that led to Markus Golden's touchdown - and no one was surprised.
"Certainly, we have a long way to go," said McDaniels in a conference call on Friday. "We would say that with all our guys. But, we’re continuing to head in the right direction, and certainly appreciate the contributions that [Izzo] made yesterday, basically playing most of the entire game yesterday on a short week."
Their inconsistency could be a matter of simply needing better blockers at tight end and tackle in order to really get the offense going on a regular basis. Because when Brady does get the protection, and when the running backs do get the blocking, they move the ball just fine. They're just not getting it as often as they're accustomed to with Brady.
But as Belichick focuses on the defense, it's a wonder whether McDaniels has too much on his plate to coach the offense himself.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].