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Chief Thoughts: Analyzing the Patriots’ week 4 victory against the Dolphins

Division domination is on the menu for the Patriots.

NFL: Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

You’re never as bad as you look after a loss. You’re never as good as you look after a win. A week ago, the Patriots looked like one of the worst teams in the NFL. Yesterday they looked like a dominant Super Bowl force. So which are the Patriots? The answer is obviously neither. This is a middling team that will have several opportunities against some very good football teams to show whether it can be a true contender for a championship.

You’re never as bad as you look after a loss. You’re never as good as you look after a win. Sunday was a great win and there are a lot of positives I want to highlight. There are also some cautionary notations I want to make. Let’s get started.

Debbie Downer

I want to get the cautionary notes out of the way first. After a dominant victory, the focus should be on the good not the bad.

Sony Michel had zero catches in the game. That’s hardly the end of the world. The Patriots have one of the best receiving backs in the NFL. Tom Brady essentially put his OC on blast during the post-game interview for the Lions game saying James White needed to be more involved. McDaniels listened and James White delivered. But I have maintained for some time Michel will need to demonstrate that he has some dual threat capabilities for him to be worth a first round pick. I’m not saying the guy has to be Le’Veon Bell but something in the 300-400 range would be nice. Sony should be capable of that in theory. He had the second fewest drops and the second highest yards per route among running backs returning to the SEC after his 2016 season. His production through the air was far from impressive but it suggests the capacity for development exists. I think it will be difficult to get him the ball with White so clearly outplaying him but I think he needs the opportunity. It will be up to him to make good on it.

Furthermore, several of the big names that were passed on to draft him have looked excellent so far. I have maintained from the beginning that I thought the chances of Sony busting were very small. He has a high floor as a runner. It’s just a question of his ceiling and the opportunity cost of his pick. If he turns into a Pro Bowl back I don’t care if the other picks turn into All Pros. You can never regret drafting good players. But it’s a high bar he needs to clear.

The Dolphins’ defensive penalties were a huge boon in this demolition exercise. Numerous Patriots scoring drives benefited from self-inflicted Miami mistakes. The offense is not going to get that lucky every week.

Tom Brady has yet to have a great game and we’re a quarter of the way through the season. He’s had numerous inaccurate throws and he’s thrown some head scratching interceptions. I don’t think it’s a big deal. I do think it’s worth keeping tabs on. Brady has started the year slow before. He’s been decent. It’s a good sign that his best game came against the vicious Jaguar defense. We’ve had issues with play calling and offensive personnel. My prediction is that Brady will gain steam as he learns to trust his new weapons and works himself into midseason form. But consider this, through three and a half years Tom Brady has been the most consistently elite quarterback in the NFL. Far more consistent than his closest rival Aaron Rodgers. Irrespective of age, or personnel situation, you would expect that level of elite play to regress at some point. Perhaps that time is coming?

Injuries continue to hamper this team. An injury to Rob Gronkowski could sideline our second best player and an injury to Elandon Roberts places severe strain on what has become a thin position group. We will wait for definitive updates on both of them but it’s probably the most troubling development of the week.

Finally, I just want to note that as good as the Patriots looked they were not playing a very good team. While the Dolphins did notch a win against the 3-1 Titans in the season opener, their other two victories came against 1-3 teams. It’s not like we just deconstructed the Rams. I don’t want people acting surprised when the Chiefs buzz saw through our defense in a couple of weeks. We are going to face offenses far more powerful than Miami.

But I honestly don’t care if it’s against the Cleveland Browns. Anytime you pitch a functional shut out and hang 38 points on another team it’s cause for celebration. So let’s celebrate.

Fixing the Playstation

I stood by Sony the last couple of weeks and that faith paid off this weekend. It was awesome watching James Develin smash his helmet into Michel’s and shake him in delight after his 23-yard scamper on a 1st & 10. The Patriots offensive line decided they would actually run block for a change and the difference was 112 yards on the ground for Sony Michel at an efficient 4.5 yards per a carry. Sony Michel displayed the decisiveness and burst that catapulted him up draft boards. As I said last week his college tape was too good for him to be a bad runner in the NFL. Sony provided exactly the type of chunk plays Josh McDaniels was hoping he would get from him in his offense. My strong suspicion, and hope, is that Michel continues gain steam as he continues to recover from his knee surgery and gains more experience.

I won’t deny it. Even a journeyman back would have had success with the way the OL was blocking yesterday. But nearly 50% of Sony production has come after contact. He’s benefiting from his offensive line but he’s also producing on his own. That’s crucial. Sony also continued to validate his pre draft evaluation as an excellent pass protector. The Atlanta Falcons lost a heartbreaker on Sunday and the failure of their running back to pick up a blitz played a big part in the loss. Pass protection is a huge unsung trait for running backs and Michel has looked good so far. The young back has a lot to prove, and I have some serious concerns he will ever live up to his draft status, but this was a good start.

JG Hype Train Gaining Steam

Yes, I know Josh Gordon’s stats were pedestrian. But it’s not the stats that matter. It’s the how he went about collecting them. On a 3rd & 6 Gordon had an excellent catch in traffic, casting off an opposing corner, and turned up for more yards. Gordon was wide open when he caught his second pass with his hands and then broke two tackles for more yardage. I wrote a couple months ago that if Patterson could actually play well, he would be the perfect wide receiver for Josh McDaniels because of his gift after the catch. McDaniels does a great job of helping his receivers rack up YAC. I also wrote in my Josh Gordon piece that Gordon could provide a lot of the same value after the catch, the difference being he actually is a good receiver. I think the more Gordon becomes integrated into the offense, the more he can start to take advantage of the things they wanted to do with Patterson. To top off the highlights, Josh provided a nice block for a James White’s TD.

Gordon is going to be fundamentally limited by his lack of time with the Patriots. He is going to have an extremely difficult time staying on the field. But this showing suggests he still possess the skills that made him such an electric wide receiver. It’s a huge question on whether or not Gordon can stay on the field. It’s has become less of a question whether Gordon can contribute when he is there.

Choo! Choo!

Receiving Returns

Dorsett and Patterson both had nice games this week.

Patterson caught a less than accurate ball from Tom Brady before letting his gift in the open field dominant the Dolphins for a 55-yard TD. There is no doubt that Patterson is gifted with the ball in his hands. But I don’t think that answered any of the fundamental issues regarding his ability to win separation against opposing corners.

The Dorsett acrobatic touchdown catch over Dolphins top cornerback Xavien Howard was beautiful. I said before the season that I liked Dorsett to be the breakout candidate and I think that prediction is holding true. Dorsett is absolutely not a number one wide receiver. And while he is bound to catch a couple of bombs this season, he is nowhere near the deep threat of Brandin Cooks. But I do think he is demonstrating what I beat the table for several times during the offseason; namely that Dorsett can play a meaningful role in the intermediate and short passing game.

Dorsett is a decent receiver with excellent athletic traits and that has value. And that value is going to increase even more with the Gordon trade and Edelman returning to the team. Dorsett may not be a great receiver but he can be competitive or better than most teams CB3 and CB4.

Oh yeah. We get Edelman back. A week ago this receiving core looked like one of the ten worst in the NFL. Not anymore. It’s hard not to get excited about the idea of fielding Edelman, Gordon, Dorsett, and Gronk on the field at the same time. On paper that is a brutal slew of receivers and that will create match up problems against any defense in the NFL.

There are plenty of ways to poke holes in that piece of paper though. How much can Gordon acclimate and can he even stay on the field? How will Edelman perform after a drug bust and season-ending injury at his age? Can Gronk survive the season?

The AFC is home to two of the most explosive offenses in the NFL. If either the Chiefs or Steelers offenses are having an on day there is no realistic chance of our defense stopping them. Our only hope is to keep pace and win a shootout. That did not seam a realistic proposition with week three’s roster. With the addition of Gordon and Edelman it’s a lot more feasible.

Defensive Domination

Holy crap was it nice to see a defense that did not suck.

Dont’a Hightower will need a few more performances like Sunday before the concerns about him can be put to rest. But this definitely helped quiet some of his critics. I am still baffled as to what was causing his bizarre regression but it’s good to see him rebound from the last two weeks. Kyle Van Noy also had a nice game. Heck, so did Elandon Roberts before his injury. It seems clear that this team is going to live or die on the strength of it’s linebackers. Which is scary. But at least it wasn’t scary today.

The secondary looked better this week. Miami does not have anywhere near the caliber of receivers that the Lions do but they do have some okay receiving options. I thought our corners acquitted themselves admirably. There are two I want to highlight. The first is Jonathan Jones who continues what has been a productive start to the season. The fact that it is coming off a season ending injury only contributes to his stock.

The second is J.C. Jackson. I am biased against Eric Rowe. Let me make that clear. I think he has had a couple nice games against bigger receivers but week to week he is too inconsistent to be considered a legitimate CB2. I think Jackson showed enough on the field that he deserves additional reps. Look, his coverage was decent but not great. But who is he replacing? Eric Rowe. Whose coverage has been decent but not great. My only concern would be that we destroy his confidence. It’s hard to see J.C. holding his own against a guy like Sammy Watkins who’d be be matched up against when we play the Chiefs. In fact I may already be talking myself out of this proposition. Then again maybe we won’t have a choice? Eric Rowe’s health has been very fickle.

Let’s also talk about that interception from Jackson. It was an underthrown pass from Ryan Tannehill but it adds a third to the two interceptions J.C. had from the preseason. Is it too early to say he has some ball hawk qualities? Getting INT’s can negate flaws in your coverage game. Just ask Marcus Peters. He was far from the best coverage corner in the game but teams would often avoid him like the plague because of the turnover threat he represented. I don’t expect J.C. Jackson obviously won’t be of the same quality as Peters but it’s an extremely valuable trait to have. Let’s see if he can continue to develop it.

The defensive line looked a lot better with Trey Flowers playing. That’s worrisome because he’s going to be a free agent next year but at least it did look better. The rest of the team did a good job beating up on a mediocre offensive line. I still don’t see a defense that can stand tall against good OL’s but we don’t face too many good ones this season so that’s okay. Shelton looked good. Also apparently Lawrence Guy is elite in case you were not aware.

Taking Responsibility

The offensive line said that they were taking responsibility for getting Michel going and they made good on the commitment. The listless crap show that they exhibited last week was nowhere to be seen. The Patriots run blocking was excellent as they out physical-ed the opposition and imposed their will. The pass protection was spotty at times. I still don’t think the offensive line has put forward a completely dominate performance this season. Still, if the offensive line played like this week in and week out it’s going to be difficult not to win football games.

Speaking of responsibility, I think the accountability thread was fairly measured outside of a few hot takes. It was obviously frustrating to see our team struggle so significantly but I did not see a lot of people jumping ship. Most folk maintained their confidence that this was a playoff, if not Super Bowl, caliber team and time would bear that out. This week that faith was repaid. Let’s hope that it continues too. It’s a long season works both ways.

Around the League

Did Jon Gruden not watch Khalil Mack tape before he traded him? As Mack notched another strip sack Gruden seemed shocked by the news. Look, I don’t hate Gruden’s thinking. He essentially weighed the value of a really good free agent and two first round picks and decided that had more value than Mack. But to sound shocked that his all pro defender is continuing to dominate elsewhere makes him look silly.

Jacksonville bounced back and took care of business. They are currently only 2nd in the division because the Titans keep finding ways to win football games. The Titans have now defeated two good teams in Jacksonville and the Eagles and won both of their divisional games. The Jacksonville claim to the AFC South may be less firm than many believed. Dion Lewis and Corey Davis both had big games. The Titans are dangerous if Marcus Mariota plays well but they have a long way to go if they want to win a championship.

Barkley is easily the best rookie back through four weeks of what was widely seen as a deeply talented rookie running back class. It still doesn’t matter because Eli sucks, their offensive line sucks, and the Giants should have drafted a quarterback. Ereck Flowers is one of the worst tackles I have ever had the misfortune to watch.

Bengals and Ravens both look good this year. It’s hard to be afraid of Cincinnati but Baltimore is an entirely different animal. Like the Patriots they get a big reinforcement this week with the return of Jimmy Smith.

Parity is largely back in the NFL. Yes, over the next eight weeks several teams will emerge as dominant front runners. I don’t doubt that. But four weeks in and only two teams remain undefeated. A far cry from 2015 with as many as 7 undefeated teams through five weeks of football.