BEN VOLIN | ON FOOTBALL
Charles Krupa/Associated Press
The Steelers wanted nothing to do with James Harrison this year, stashing their 39-year-old pass rusher on the bench and refusing to unwrap him. The Patriots signed Harrison to a minimum contract last week, because no other team called him.
But after watching just one game of Harrison on Sunday, the Patriots’ 26-6 win over the Jets, this much is clear — he still can play football. And the Patriots suddenly have a formidable linebacker group.
The Patriots have been hit with injuries at linebacker this year — Dont’a Hightower suffered a season-ending pectoral injury in Week 7, Kyle Van Noy has a calf injury that has mostly kept him out of the last five games — and the Patriots have been forced to piece it together with Elandon Roberts, special teamer Marquis Flowers, and guys off the street such as Eric Lee and Jonathan Freeny.
But it’s all starting to come back together. Van Noy returned from a three-game absence to play strongside linebacker. He only played 12 snaps, but now he gets two weeks to prepare for the Patriots’ playoff game, and he should be good to go, barring a setback. Van Noy is a big addition to the defense, someone who can maintain the edge in the run game and can cover running backs in the pass game.
They had Roberts at middle linebacker, who although he can be a liability in coverage, is still a missile in run defense and packs a big punch.
And they had Harrison playing weakside linebacker, and he looked like a complete football player on Sunday. The general assumption was that Harrison was brought here to be a situational pass rusher, but he was much more than that against the Jets.
First off, Harrison played almost exclusively on first and second down, and came off the field on obvious passing third downs. He only played weakside linebacker — on the side of the formation away from the tight end — so that he often was the unblocked defender on running plays, or went head-to-head with the offensive tackles.
The Patriots then used Harrison in three different ways. In his 27 snaps, Harrison rushed the passer 11 times, almost all of them in the second half, when the Jets were mostly throwing the ball. He doesn’t have a great initial burst anymore, but Harrison still has strength and a motor, and came away with two second-effort sacks and a QB pressure, all against left tackle Kelvin Beachum.
Harrison played the run on 10 of his snaps. Most of the runs were away from his side of the field, but on one notable occasion, Harrison took on two blockers, held the edge, and let Roberts swoop in to stuff Elijah McGuire for a 1-yard loss. This is why they got Harrison — Lee, Cassius Marsh, and Deatrich Wise have not been consistent at holding the edge.
And Harrison even dropped into zone pass coverage six times. The Patriots never matched him up one-on-one vs. a receiver, but had him drop into the flat or the middle of the field. On one third and 5, Harrison dropped back, then exploded to the ball and dropped Robby Anderson for a 2-yard stop.
Harrison is still a situational player. But he’s a lot more than just a pass rusher, and he still has some football left in him. With Harrison and Van Noy back in the fold, the Patriots suddenly have a credible linebacking corps.
Other observations after rewatching the tape:
When the Patriots had the ball
■ Dion Lewis had too many impressive runs to count, and his ability to gain extra yards continues to astound. We counted seven tacklers that Lewis made whiff with his spin moves, jump-cuts, and dynamic ability to start and stop. Among his best runs: making Demario Davis whiff in the backfield and powering through Xavier Cooper to barely convert a third-and-1; on second and 8, Lewis is seemingly corralled by three Jets defenders short of the sticks, but he still squires around Morris Claiborne and picks up the first down; breaking Buster Skrine’s ankles on a 9-yard swing pass; on first and 10, Lewis looks like he’s bottled up inside, but he jump-cuts twice, squirms through a hole, and emerges on the other side for a big 17-yard gain.
And Lewis looked like he’s been taking lessons from Le’Veon Bell lately by showcasing an impressively patient running style. On second and 5 in the third quarter, Lewis took a handoff left, stopped, literally took a step backward, squared his body to the line of scrimmage, hit the hole right up the middle, smashed through Rontez Miles to gain 4 extra yards, and picked up the first down.
Lewis is setting himself up for a nice payday in free agency this spring, from the Patriots or someone else.
■ We wrote after Sunday’s game about how Tom Brady needs more help from his teammates in the playoffs. In rewatching the game, it became even more apparent how Brady just isn’t on the same page as his receivers.
The CBS cameras showed Brady having a nice, long chat with Danny Amendola as the two walked off the field and hit the sideline following a miscommunication on third and 12.
And toward the end of the game, the cameras again showed Brady having a stern discussion with Brandin Cooks on the sideline after the two had a miscommunication on third down (the play where Brady was called for intentional grounding). This after Brady was ticked off at Cooks for slowing down on a deep ball early in the game.
It’s not a good sign when the quarterback is having communication errors with two of his top receivers this late in the season.
■ With several starters out because of injury, and the Patriots clearly protecting Rob Gronkowski from taking any hits, the Patriots again had to rely on some gimmicks to move the ball. For the second week in a row Josh McDaniels called a steady diet of play-action just to give Brady enough time to throw against the Jets’ front seven. The tactic worked, as Brady was hit just five times and sacked twice on 39 dropbacks. Lewis’s touchdown reception came off play-action.
And they went no-huddle to start the game, to try to get into a rhythm and post an early lead. The Patriots surprisingly took the ball to start the game instead of deferring, and Jim Nantz noted that the Patriots emphasized the need to play from ahead against the Jets.
■ The Jets took a cue from the Patriots’ recent opponents and played a lot of press-man coverage with just a single deep safety, daring the Patriots to beat them deep. And for the most part, the Patriots once again struggled to get separation. The word is out — press the Patriots receivers at the line of scrimmage and blitz Brady. The Jets tallied both of their sacks this way, and forced four key incompletions with their blitz, including two on third down.
Fortunately, the Jets committed three defensive holding penalties, an illegal hands to the face, and a 39-yard pass interference. But the word is out on how to slow down the Patriots. The Patriots’ longest play in the first half was just 16 yards, and for the game they only had two passes over 20 yards.
■ Right tackle Cam Fleming had a rough game. He got beaten badly to the outside by David Bass for an easy sack on a four-man rush. Fleming also allowed a run stuff in the third quarter, and let Jordan Jenkins plow right through him to hit Brady and force an incompletion. The right tackle spot could be an issue for the Patriots in the playoffs.
■ Phillip Dorsett hasn’t done much to earn Brady’s trust, and dropping that beautiful deep pass on Sunday won’t help. But Dorsett had a key block around the edge to spring Lewis for a 3-yard touchdown run around the left edge. Dwayne Allen had the other key block.
■ Scary moment in the second quarter, when Lewis rolled up on Nate Solder from behind. Solder hit the deck and came up hopping a few moments later, but he was OK. That could have been disastrous.
When the Jets had the ball
■ The Patriots’ run defense was excellent, holding the Jets to 40 yards on 19 carries. Of course, it helps that they could sell out to stop the run because Bryce Petty was the quarterback, but Lawrence Guy (three stuffs), Malcom Brown (two stuffs), Trey Flowers, Ricky Jean Francois, and Roberts (one each) all made plays behind the line of scrimmage. Guy, especially, has been on a dominant run over the last month or so. The Jets had a big run set up with a toss to the right, but Guy maintained his leverage against the guard and dropped Bilal Powell for just 2 yards.
■ Harrison is going to be a big addition in the run game, because Lee just isn’t getting it done. Once again, Lee was unable to set the edge and allowed Powell to scamper for 24 yards to the left side. And Trey Flowers got caught inside on an 11-yard run by Elijah McGuire.
■ Speaking of the Patriots’ suddenly formidable linebacker corps, that includes Marquis Flowers, who has played 86 snaps over the last two games and has done a nice job in all phases. He’s not the most fluid athlete in zone coverage, but he covers the middle of the field well enough, and had a beautiful delayed pass rush for a sack up the middle.
■ Van Noy definitely looked tentative running around the field. This looked important for him just to get some game action before the playoffs, because the Patriots need him.
■ The Patriots showed a Cover 0 defense for the first time all year (no deep safeties), daring Petty to beat them deep. Petty took advantage twice, hitting Neal Sterling in the flat for 15 yards, and throwing a beautiful deep ball to ArDarius Stewart over Jonathan Jones for 46 yards.
■ The kickoff coverage wasn’t always perfect, but Stephen Gostkowski again was masterful with the placement of his short kickoffs. Only 1 of his 5 kickoffs went for touchbacks, and Gostkowski finished the regular season with the second-lowest touchback percentage in the NFL (40.8 percent), behind only Tampa Bay.
■ Tremendous punting day for Ryan Allen. The net average of 41.8 doesn’t jump off the page, but five of his eight punts were downed inside the 20, and three were downed inside the 5 (all in the fourth quarter). His coffin corner punt that went out of bounds at the 3 was a beauty.
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