Matt Judon sacked Detroit's Jared Goff twice on Sunday, as the Pats blanked the NFL's highest-scoring offense. (Photo by Nick Grace/Getty Images)
Atop the list of observations from the Patriots’ first practice of the past week were the reappearance of quarterback Mac Jones and return from injury of rookie receiver Tyquan Thornton.
Equally if not more important, it turns out, was what was missing last Wednesday. In a departure from precedent the previous four game weeks, the Pats left their pads in the equipment room, eschewing ‘contact’ to more or less walk through their first steps of preparation for the Lions.
First thought at the time was that Bill Belichick’s decision to hold what he’s since referred to as a “pretty light day” was strictly tied to physical health. What with the injured list expanding from Jakobi and Jalen to Jonnu.
Otherwise, wouldn’t it make more sense to tighten chin straps, don shoulder pads and get after it with plenty of blocking and tackling before confronting a Detroit offense whose league-leading 436.8 yards a game was largely attributed to gains after contact and catches?
Quite the opposite. At least on Sunday, when a first-quarter run stuff set the tone for a record stand on fourth downs and shutout of an opponent averaging 4.5 touchdowns and 35.0 points a game overall.
Entering Foxborough, the Lions had converted 8-of-12 fourth-down attempts. Eighty percent of their drives inside the opponents’ 30-yard line (16-of-20) produced touchdowns, a number that rose to 88.2 percent (15-of-17) when they reached the 20-yard line.
Routinely, they covered large swaths on single plays. Twelve Jared Goff pass completions picked up at least 25 yards. Four runs by three players went as long as 50 yards. Much of those chunks resulted from broken or flat-out missed tackles.
Additionally, Detroit’s line allowed just five sacks in Goff’s first 161 drop-backs. Only the Chargers’ Justin Herbert was sacked less through four games.
Sunday was a different story. It was, for the Lions’ offense, a show about nothing. Six tries on fourth down. Three trips into the red zone. All ending in the same sum. No conversions. No touchdowns. No points. Period.
New England’s defense didn’t just outscore Detroit’s offense; it gained more yards after contact too.
As the Lions drove into Pats’ territory, trailing, 6-0, in the second quarter, their offense remained on the field for a second time on fourth down. And for the second time in four series, Matt Judon sacked Goff, who coughed up the ball. Kyle Dugger scooped it up, then quick-stepped and high-stepped 59 yards to the end zone.
A one-score contest became a runaway.
Kyle Dugger high-stepped into the end zone after the Pats stopped the Lions on the second of their six failed fourth-down conversation attempts. (Photo by Nick Grace/Getty Images)
So how did the Patriots get so physical, staying on point to perfect the ole Frank Costanza art of stopping short?
Devin McCourty says it was a mental well-being from a lighter Wednesday that led to a hard-hitting game day.
“I would say from the beginning of the week, talking about what we needed to do, we had, I would say, a less physical practice Wednesday,” McCourty said after the 29-0 win. “I think sometimes everybody’s like, ‘Oh my goodness, they’re not in full pads.’ But I think the good thing about that is guys being locked in.”
Maximizing their time, McCourty explained, he and his defensive mates conversed more about Detroit’s plays, formations and personnel. They studied film together and exchanged ideas about the scheme they’d oppose and the one they’d implement.
“I thought you saw that progress throughout the week with our play calls,” he continued. “I thought then Sunday, today, we were able to come out and play fast. I think like Bill [Belichick] said [their] offense had everything.
“Tight end’s really good. You’ve got good receivers. You got the running game. So we had to all do a good job. We all had to kind of ‘do our job’ and play good team defense and we were able to do that and get some key stops throughout the game.”
That tight end, T.J. Hockenson, was coming off eight catches, 179 receiving yards, two touchdowns and a two-point conversion vs. Seattle. He ended up with one grab among six targets, one of which was intercepted by Jack Jones.
Those receivers were headlined by Amon-Ra St. Brown, who in Week 2 caught nine passes for 116 yards and two scores and ripped off a 58-yard run against Washington. He ended up with four receptions, totaling 18 yards. On one, a 4th-and-2 completion, St. Brown was dropped by Jonathan Jones for no gain.
As for the running game, Jamal Williams, the NFL leader with six rushing scores in four contests, couldn’t convert a 4th-and-1 give up the gut on the Lions’ first series. After 108 yards and two TD’s a week earlier, he ended up with 56 yards on 15 carries for a 3.7 average.
“This is a tough sport, as you can see,” said Judon, concurring with McCourty regarding the midweek emphasis on mindfulness. “It just allowed us an extra day to get our bodies back right. But mentally, going through the walk-through, everything like that, we were mentally locked in.”
Bodily rest in this case afforded opportunity to sharpen focus rather than simply relax.
“We took advantage of it and we came out here and played very well,” Judon said.
After physical downtime during the week, Devin McCourty said the Patriots’ defense was ‘locked in’ on Sunday. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)
Belichick, who first noted the change in practice schedule in his postgame remarks, credited McCourty, Judon et al for making good use of the physical downtime on his Monday morning Zoom with local media.
“Our captains and our veteran players gave us a lot of leadership there, in terms of the way we handled it,” he said. “That’s really important. So they took the change and I thought, as you said and referenced, utilized that time to lock in and spend extra mental preparation time in the understanding of the Lions’ offensive, defensive, special teams systems, personnel and so forth.
“So when we did actually practice and then play, that was reflected in the execution for a team that we really didn’t know hardly at all, based on the number of new players that they’ve had since the last time we played them. So I think really more than the schedule, the credit needs to go to the players for the way they handled it, the way they applied it and got the most out of it.”
Don’t ever expect Belichick to adopt the methods of the late John Gagliardi, who famously kept practice contact to a minimum throughout his six-plus decades as a Hall-of-Fame small college coach, or Buddy Teevens, the longtime Dartmouth coach whose team tackles remote-controlled ‘dummies’ rather than each other.
But also don’t mistake him as a rigid, whistle-blowing 70-year old set in a one-and-only way, wistful for the days of ‘Oklahoma Drills’ and close-minded to the discoveries of modern-day sports science.
Or, more specific to this instance, understand what he does. A head coach has to have a sense of when to go hard and when to let up, informed by input from others.
“I think over the course of the season, as a head coach, you kind of get a feel for your team. It may not be the entire team, it may be what most of the team needs,” he explained. “So you have to sacrifice some of the other part of it for practice schedules, or meeting schedules, or time commitment, however you want to look at it, time management.
“We have so much time we want to try to use it as productively as possible. So those decisions on how to practice, or how long to practice, or how long to meet, or how long to allocate certain time frames to different things are based on where our team is, who the opponent is and sometimes what I feel, and sometimes the staff will recommend that as well to me.”
Soon the game schedule will dictate changes to the practice schedule. This week the Patriots ready for another 1 o’clock Sunday kickoff in Cleveland. The week after, they host Chicago on a Monday night. Late November and December feature two Thursday encounters and another Monday engagement.
“But in just the regular routine, if you change it then I think you need to have a reason to change it,” Belichick said. “Last week, I just felt like that was the right thing to do. (I) talked to the players and talking to the staff as well, I think we all kind of felt like that. Players responded extremely well. I thought we tried to play hard and physical yesterday, which we need to do and continue to do. We’ll just have to manage it from week-to-week.
“When you do change the schedule the most important thing is that the players understand why it’s being changed, what they have to do to make it work and then do it. I thought, again, that was really, the players did a great job of that this week.”
Bob Socci is in his 10th season calling play-by-play for the Patriots Radio Network on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.