FOXBORO -- It all starts with the locker.
The corner locker -- the one to the left of the players’ entrance in the home locker room at Gillette Stadium -- is important real estate. You don’t give the corner locker to just anyone. With a great locker comes great responsibility. When Willie McGinest was with the Patriots, the locker belonged to him. Now, the locker belongs to linebacker Jerod Mayo.
His locker, his defense. You can bring in all the veterans you want -- Shaun Ellis, Albert Haynesworth, Andre Carter. Simply put, the 25-year-old All-Pro and defensive captain is in charge. He was the one who organized the offseason workouts. When it came to running the defense during the players’ only workouts, he was in charge.
And this season, when it comes to making plays with the game in the balance, he’s doing just that. On Sunday against the Chargers -- a game that ended up a 35-21 win over San Diego (click here for the complete recap) -- Mayo made two key plays that helped spark a New England victory. First, with the Chargers sitting on a fourth-and-goal at the New England one in the second quarter, he met San Diego’s truck of a running back Mike Tolbert in the hole, preventing him from crossing the goal line and denying the Chargers a shot at the lead. The Patriots took over on downs and drove the ball 99 yards for a touchdown to make it 17-7.
“Jerod made a hell of a play,” said defensive lineman Vince Wilfork of Mayo, who ended the game with 11 tackles and a forced fumble. “That’s why he’s one of the top linebackers in the game. He showed it today. That play he made was a good, good tackle, everybody was playing their assignment, and he was free to run to the ball. Anytime you can get a goal-line stand, its big for a defense. You always talk about winning in the red area, and there’s no bigger win down there. It can’t get any bigger than that.”
Then, with just over 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, it was Mayo’s time again, again coming up big against Tolbert. With the Chargers again driving on New England (they were in a second-and-5 on the Patriots’ 34), the San Diego running back tried to get cute. When his the initial hole closed up, he tried to dance backward, lost three yards and then lost the football when Mayo reached in and poked it away. The Patriots also turned that into points when, four plays later, Tom Brady hit Rob Gronkowski to make it a two-score game midway through the final quarter, essentially putting the game out of reach.
From a numbers perspective, it was not the most impressive performance for the New England defense, as the stat sheet sparked some not-so-favorable reminders of last year: the San Diego offense was 10-for-12 on third-down opportunities and the Patriots allowed 470 total yards, including 378 yards passing to Philip Rivers and 10 catches by Vincent Jackson for 172 yards.
But like one football coach said, stats are for losers.
“Obviously, we care [that those numbers are so big],’’ said Mayo, who finished with at least 10 tackles for the 19th time in his career. “But first and foremost, we got a win.’’
In the end, they made plays when it counted -- forcing four turnovers, and adding Mayo’s goal-line stop for good measure. And on some days, that’s all that really counts.
“We still have to work on the yardage and third-down defense and things like that, but we showed great mental toughness by coming up with turnovers, huge turnovers and playing complimentary football,” Mayo said. “Just stopping the run and doing things on the goal line really shows toughness and I think the defense really showed that tonight.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday at Gillette Stadium:
WE ARE RUNNING OUT OF WAYS TO DESCRIBE THE PLAY OF THE PATRIOTS QUARTERBACK.
Perhaps we dip into the Fake James Lipton bag for something like scrumtrulescent. Who really knows at this point? A week after tossing for 517 yards against the Dolphins, the reigning NFL MVP put up 423 passing yards on the Chargers. He went 31-of-40 passes for 423 yards and three touchdown passes. He finished the game with a 135.7 passer rating, the ninth straight regular-season game he has topped the century mark, and became the first quarterback in NFL history to follow a 500-plus yard performance with one better than 400 yards. Brady was at his best on the 99-yard touchdown drive in the first half following the Mayo tackle, completing passes to five different receivers, including a 10-yard scoring strike to Rob Gronkowski. He also engineered a 92-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter.
One of the things that Brady has really seemed to feed off of over the first two weeks of the season is the extended use of the no-huddle offense. That’s not to say that the Patriots are racing downfield on every play. Instead, they are keeping their foot on the gas pedal just long enough to make sure that teams can’t substitute (or of they do substitute, they have to make a change immediately). On Sunday against San Diego, they picked up the pace in the second half, keeping the Chargers guessing and keeping the New England offense in a nice rhythm.
“Whatever we need to do to get the ball in the end zone, that’s the goal. There’s times where it’s effective. There were times today when it wasn’t effective,” said Brady when asked about the overall effectiveness of the no-huddle. “We’re trying to be efficient about what we’re doing. It’s always something that we talk about, things that we need to execute better, whether its no-huddle, two-minute, four-minute offense, backed-up, going in, red area, third [down], it’s situational football. No-huddle offense is part of our offense and hopefully we can continue to be efficient with it.”
PUT A RECEIVER ON WILFORK ISLAND, AND HE JUST MIGHT BE STRANDED.
Redefining the term “shutdown nose tackle,” Patriots’ defensive lineman Vince Wilfork had a chance to make like a defensive back Sunday against the Chargers. Down 17-7 with 19 seconds left in the first half, the Chargers were at the New England 19-yard line, driving for a touchdown that could pull them to within three as the second quarter came to a close.
Operating out of the shotgun, San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers dropped back to pass and tried to shoot one right for running back Mike Tolbert, who was a threat all afternoon in the passing game (he finished with 73 yards receiving in eight catches). But the pass was tipped up in the air by Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, who gathered the ball in and went rumbling down the San Diego sideline, all the way to the Chargers 29-yard line.
Wilfork appeared to have a good shot at scoring, but he was caught from behind by Tolbert, who appeared to crash into Wilfork after Devin McCourty accidentally knocked Tolbert into Wilfork’s path from behind. Three plays later, Stephen Gostkowski banged home a 47-yard field goal to make it 20-7 at the half.
While the whole thing revived memories of the last time a big dude came steamrolling down the field with the football, Wilfork called the pick -- and the points that came as a result -- another good example of situational football.
“We play a lot of situational football around here, and in that situation with two minutes, we kind of know what they were trying to do,” he said. “I wasn’t saying I was right, but I saw the running back take out, so I was thinking screen from the look I got from my guard and anticipating it could be a screen. I actually got in his throwing range, so I made a play ... and Bill always says if you take a chance you better make it. I guess I made it.”
“I’d throw that one again every time,” said Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers on the first of his two interceptions. “He made a great play -- I don’t know if that was something that they looked at. If you don’t get a pass rush and see the back free release. … (But) that’s just one of those [things] where he made a great play. I don’t know that I’d do anything differently on that play.”
“I’m a cover-two guy,” joked Wilfork after the game when talking about his style as a defensive back. “I like to play up, I like to get my hands on the receiver. I’m physical at the line of scrimmage. I can’t play off; I have to be up in someone’s face, actually hitting them in the check, stuff like that. That’s where I make my living.”
FACED WITH THE DECISION OF TRYING TO STOP EITHER ANTONIO GATES OR VINCENT JACKSON, THE PATRIOTS CHOSE GATES.
The Patriots’ defense enters every game with a singular philosophy: strip the opponents of their No. 1 offensive option. On Sunday afternoon, that was San Diego tight end Antonio Gates, who had tortured numerous New England defenders since he first arrived in the league. Gates spent most of the afternoon in double coverage, shadowed by a pair of defensive backs (either a corner and a safety or two safeties).
“They did a lot of different things to take me out of the game,” said Gates, who was targeted once but didn’t have a catch. “I kept working at it, kept trying. The end result was I couldn’t get the ball to come my way.”
San Diego coach Norv Turner said the Chargers flipped Gates and Vincent Jackson in an attempt to get Gates more chances, but to no avail.
“I mean, we would like to throw the ball to him every down if we could. They did a great job on him,” Turner said. “In the game, we put Gates at Vincent Jackson’s position and Vincent at Gates’ position, and that’s why (Jackson) got open because they continued to double Gates and Vincent got single coverage. That’s why he kept getting the ball open in the middle.”
As a result, Gates was held without a catch for the first time since Dec. 4, 2008, when he tossed a goose egg against the Oakland Raiders. Of course, Jackson ran wild, finishing with an absolutely ridiculous 10 catches for 172 receiving yards and a pair of touchdown catches that have to be seen to be believed. But that’s a tradeoff the Patriots will take every time.
DEVIN MCCOURTY HAS BEEN A BUSY MAN THROUGH THE FIRST TWO WEEKS OF THE SEASON.
Of course, when the Patriots decided to leave Jackson in single coverage, Devin McCourty was frequently the guy who drew the short straw. Jackson picked up a pair of touchdowns at McCourty’s expense, including a third-quarter score where Jackson was able to shake McCourty in the back of the end zone and collect a three-yard touchdown pass to make it 20-14 at the start of the fourth quarter.
For McCourty, it’s been a tough couple of weeks, at least statistically. Much of Jackson’s offensive output came at McCourty’s expense. That comes on the heels of his work in the season opener, was targeted 15 times by the Dolphins and allowed nine receptions for 151 yards (most of them against Brandon Marshall).
“When you see Brandon Marshall and then this week, we had Philip Rivers and Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd, we just have to keep getting better,” said McCourty, who had two tackles, including one for a loss. “There are some play which we are making the right plays on, like Sergio Brown making the big interception, and then we have a couple of good stops. Then, there are plays where I was beat on two touchdowns.”
McCourty said right now, for him, it comes down to being more consistent.
“I feel like there were times where I make a pretty good play, and there are other times where I’m not. I said earlier in the season one of my goals was to be a more consistent player as a corner, and I think I’m still working toward that right now -- just trying to continue to make plays and be better out there on the field,” McCourty said.
“I’m just getting better right now. I think, in my second year, just it’s a process. You just don’t come in here and go from being a rookie and just go and be a consistent player. I’m working through it. There’s growing pains to it, so I’m just trying to try and work and get better.”
One possibility is that now, in his second season, teams have a fuller scouting report on what he can and cannot do.
“I don’t know if they are approaching me differently,” he said. “But I remember last year coming into this league, the first thing my coach said to me was ‘Once you start playing teams, now they’ve got a scouting report on you. When you’re a rookie, no one really knows anything about you. They don’t go back and watch college film.’ Of course, I think when you go out there, guys are going to look at your strengths and look at your weaknesses, and it’s their job to go out there and try to attack your weakness.”
THE RUMORS OF DEION BRANCH’S DEMISE WERE GREATLY EXAGGERATED.
On the heels of one of the most impressive performances in the regular season opener against the Dolphins (seven catches for 93 yards), Branch took another step forward Sunday afternoon when he had eight catches for 129 yards. The guy who some believed was in danger of being cut after going the entire preseason without a catch (I still have a hard time typing that) now has 15 catches for 222 yards through two games -- tied with Wes Welker for best on the team in receptions and second behind Welker in terms of total yards.
The singular connection between Brady and Branch is difficult to explain. (The closest I’ve seen this “60 Minutes” feature where Brady is able to simply shoot Branch a look and the receiver instantly knows what route to run.) Their compatibility and trust has built a chemistry that very few quarterbacks and wide receivers have ever known.
After the game, as Wilfork was commanding the podium, Brady stood on one side and Branch was on the other. They were both angling to see who would go next, exchanging hand signals and looks in hopes of trying to one-up each other, before eventually walking to the podium together and answering questions in tandem. Considering their relationship, it’s actually surprising they haven’t tried something like that sooner.
“I’ve thrown a lot of passes to him over the years. There’s nobody that I enjoy playing with more than this guy,” said Brady while pointing to Branch. “It’s always been that way. He’s my lockermate, and one of my great friends. He’s just everything you look for in a receiver.”
“I just think overall the work that we put in in practice is what’s really going on,” Branch said when asked to explain their football ESP. “All the meetings and everything we sit in with this guy, each and every day -- all day Wednesday, all day Thursday, all day Friday -- we talk about a lot of different things. I think the line of communication us always good for us. And that’s what you’re seeing. It’s not so much what we’re doing on a game day. It’s about the work that we’re putting in on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.”
THE FANS ARE BEHIND CHAD OCHOCINCO.
The first catch, a 15-yarder with just under seven minutes left in the first quarter, was met with wild cheers. The second, a 30-yarder midway through the second quarter over the middle midway through the second quarter, received an even bigger ovation. That was it on the afternoon for Chad Ochocinco, but it was clear by the sounds from a lubed-up crowd at Gillette Stadium that they were solidly behind the newest Patriots receiver, who now that three catches for 59 yards through three games.
“You have to talk to Chad about that, but looking at (him), he’s doing a lot of good things in practice for us,” Branch said of Ochocinco, who played 18 offensive snaps but did not speak with the media after the game. “He’s doing everything that coach has asked him.”
IT’S ONLY BEEN A YEAR PLUS, BUT IT’S HARD TO REMEMBER THE NEW ENGLAND OFFENSE WITHOUT ROB GRONKOWSKI AND AARON HERNANDEZ.
They were not the destructive duo that laid waste to the Miami secondary in the opener (when they helped the Patriots to become the first team since 2003 to record at least 189 receiving yards at the tight end position in one game), but the Gronkowski/Hernandez pairing was almost as unstoppable as they were against the Dolphins. Hernandez had seven catches for 62 yards and a touchdown, while Gronkowski had four catches for 86 yards and two touchdowns.
For Hernandez, the highlight came early on, when he helped put the capper on New England’s 92-yard scoring drive to open the game. From 14 yards out, Hernandez went up and over smallish safety Bob Sanders, pulling the ball down from its highest point and, after a brief bobble, holding on for the touchdown to make it 7-0 midway through the first quarter. As for Gronkowski, he and Brady connected deep down the middle on a fourth quarter scoring strike from 17 yards out to give New England a two-touchdown lead midway through the fourth quarter.
Through two games, the New England tight ends have combined for 24 catches, 337 receiving yards and five touchdowns. By way of comparison, the Patriots’ tight ends in 2008 (Benjamin Watson and David Thomas) combined for 31 catches, 302 yards and two touchdowns THE ENTIRE FLIPPING SEASON.
The situation involving Hernandez bears watching going forward -- despite the fact that he spoke with the media after the game, he was clearly banged up -- but for now, they remain the centerpiece of the passing game.
“It is what it is,” said Gronkowski when asked if he was surprised that the offense has featured the tight ends so heavily through two weeks. “Everyone’s doing a great job -- the o-line, the wide receivers. Whatever the play call us, that’s what you’ve got to do and go out and execute. And then, you’ve just got to keep it up, too. We’ve got to go out and practice and keep on proving week in and week out that it’s not just a one-time thing, and we can keep going out there and making blocks for running backs and doing our job.”
“THERE’S NOT A FAT GUY ALIVE WHO DOESN’T LIKE TO RUN THE BALL WELL.”
With the exception of the third quarter on Sunday against the Chargers, the Patriots have been able to get into a nice rhythm offensively throughout the first two games. Overall, New England has had 12 scoring drives this season, and they have been able to post two 99-yard drives, a 92-yard drive, an 80-yarder and two 78-yard drives.
That sort of sustained offense can be attributed in large part to the work of the offensive line. The work hasn’t been statistically perfect -- three sacks and seven quarterback hits. But when you consider the variety of moving parts over the first two games (the Patriots have already used seven different starting offensive linemen, including Sebastian Vollmer, who made his season debut Sunday at right tackle, as well as backup center Dan Connolly, who stepped in after Dan Koppen went down last week) against two teams that are better than average when it comes to rushing the passer, you have to give them a passing grade for the first two weeks of the season.
“I think it all comes down to execution,” said left tackle Matt Light, who played all 67 snaps in the win. “We can talk about the third quarter (on Sunday) and the fact that we didn’t have the productivity we had early in the game, but we responded well in the fourth quarter when we needed to, when the game got tight. I think that guys did a good job of just doing their job and being consistent with their play and let things open up.”
One of the biggest positives for the New England offense (and the offensive line in particular) on Sunday was the fact that they were able to put together a strong fourth quarter finish against the Chargers, putting 15 points on the board over the final 15 minutes, something they weren’t able to do in the season opener against the Dolphins. On the Patriots final, nine-play drive, they ran the ball six times, and got 34 of the 80 yards on the ground, including the 16-yard scoring burst from BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
“Look, there’s not a fat guy alive who doesn’t like to run the ball well,” Light said with a grin. “I wouldn’t say that we ran it well, but we ran it well enough. And I think that when Benny gets rolling out of the backfield, he always gets positive yards for us. The rest of those guys have been working really hard through camp. Look, we have to be able to have that as part of our offense, and I think it was pivotal tonight.”
THE SAFETY SPOT WILL BE AN INTERESTING POSITION FOR THE PATRIOTS THIS SEASON.
It has been fraught with drama since the start of the summer, and now, even with Brandon Meriweather in Chicago and James Sanders a distant memory, the safety position figures to stay interesting for New England. The Patriots lost their acknowledged leader at the position in Pat Chung on Sunday, when he left the contest for an extended stretch in the second half because of an arm or a hand injury. (It certainly appeared that the Oregon product was holding on to his arm or shoulder when he left the field, but the Patriots later reported it was a hand injury.)
Despite the fact that Chung returned before the end of the game, the Patriots were forced to get awfully creative along the backline throughout the second half, a dangerous consideration given the fact they were going up against the pass-happy Chargers. Without Chung, New England rolled out combinations of James Ihedigbo, Josh Barrett and Sergio Brown, a trio that has started a collective four games for the Patriots, none of which came before last week.
With Chung sidelined, it was probably Brown who had the best night, finishing with seven tackles, one pass defensed and an interception that came with just under five minutes to go in the third quarter and stopped a San Diego drive at the New England 17-yard line.
“I was man-to-man on Antonio Gates and he was running an out route, I was sticking him all the way to keep him off balance and I ran as fast as I could to keep with him. When I turned and looked up the ball was there and I picked it,” said Brown of the first interception of his professional career. “I was ecstatic. That was my first interception since high school. Really -- high school. I was so in the moment that I really don’t remember what I did after the interception.”