It was an exercise virtually every Patriots fan spent some time doing ever since the schedule was released in May. A quick peak down the slate of games showed a lot of potential problems, not only based on opposing quarterbacks but also from a variety of wide receivers.
Week 1 brought A.J. Brown and Devonta Smith with Philly, followed by Miami's dynamic tandem of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. This past week featured a trip to the Meadowlands to take on the reigning Rookie of the Year Garrett Wilson. Even the most optimistic followers had to worry about the idea of a rookie being tasked with keeping these electric playmakers in check.
But after three games cornerback Christian Gonzalez wouldn't need two hands to count the amount of plays he was beaten on, and during that time he saw plenty of man-to-man reps against each of the aforementioned stars.
Pro Football Focus currently lists the Patriots first-round pick with the fourth-highest grade in the league among 96 qualifying corners, and he's done it performing in a number of different ways.
It would be one thing if Bill Belichick simply asked the youngster to use his athleticism and lock up with an opposing receiver every play and execute man-to-man coverage. But the coach has used different schemes each week, employing plenty of zone looks in the first two games and an abundance of man against the Jets. Gonzalez has played with press techniques, roamed in zones and even impressed while occupying a de facto safety look while playing center field against Hill on a deep ball he secured for his first pick as a pro.
Despite the various changes to the game plan, Gonzalez has remained remarkably consistent and performed at a high level in every game. What stands out most from watching him is his fluid nature despite his lanky 6-2 frame. He flips his hips effortlessly while employing top-end speed to mirror wideouts.
Against the Jets he took on Wilson for much of the day and surrendered just three catches for 18 yards. Admittedly much of that had to do with Zach Wilson's inability to quickly decipher the coverage and deliver the ball to the appropriate target, but Gonzalez has been up to the task each time he's been called upon.
"One of the best things about Christian, especially at that position, is he's very even-keeled," Belichick said earlier in the week on WEEI's "The Greg Hill Show." "He's not overly emotional one way another and he's got a good, calm demeanor – a lot like [Stephon] Gilmore did. He's seen some very good receivers the first three weeks and we're going to see another one this week."
While Belichick focused on Gonzalez' demeanor when comparing the two, the rookie is also similar in stature to Gilmore. Both are bigger corners who run well and those traits allow them to match up against receivers of different sizes and skill sets.
Belichick would certainly caution against making any definitive judgements on players just three games into their career, but Gonzalez' performance has been a revelation, especially when considering the state of the secondary with Jonathan Jones, Marcus Jones and Jack Jones all out of the lineup. He's been given a lot of responsibility each week and has been outstanding.
It won't get any easier this week as he could find himself across from Dallas' CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup, but based on the early results those are matchups the rookie should relish.
The following observation is purely anecdotal and in no way is based on fact: Over the early part of the season it seems as if officials have been a bit reluctant to toss flags for pass interference. There have been a couple of rather obvious ones not called in Patriots games, both for and against New England.
This past week in New York it was pretty clear that Michael Carter arrived early while hitting Demario Douglas in the face, yet the official on top of the play chose to keep the flag in his pocket. In fairness, Myles Bryant leaped into Jaylen Waddle in the second quarter of Miami's Week 2 win in Foxborough, preventing the wideout from making a catch down the sideline for the Dolphins. Both seemed like pretty clear-cut infractions that went uncalled.
In scanning some of the Colts-Ravens game this past week, Baltimore went for it on fourth-and-3 in overtime and Lamar Jackson looked for Zay Flowers on a shallow cross. Colts linebacker E.J. Speed basically tackled the rookie before the ball arrived, leading to a turnover on downs that led to the Colts game-winning field goal.
If there has been some kind of edict encouraging the officials to be more lenient with pass interference calls, I would personally be in favor of it. However, the three plays highlighted were all egregious penalties that need to be flagged and potentially had an impact on the games. It will be interesting to see if the no-calls become a trend or simply a matter of coincidence.
Staley at it again
Somehow the Chargers found away to win despite getting little help from the decisions of their head coach. Leading 28-24 in the final two minutes, Los Angeles faced a fourth-and-1 from its own 24 and the Vikings out of timeouts. But any NFL fan knows what happens when Staley faces fourth down and this was no exception – the Chargers went for it, got stuffed and handed Kirk Cousins the ball at the 24 with 1:47 left.
Fortunately for Justin Herbert and Keenan Allen, both of whom enjoyed monster games, the defense came up with a play. After the Vikings converted on fourth-and-5 to move to the Chargers 6, Cousins wasted a lot of time before taking the next snap with 12 seconds left, then watched his pass get deflected in the end zone before being intercepted by Kenneth Murray.
A routine punt with routine coverage would have forced Minnesota to go about 70 yards with no timeouts. But Staley chose to roll the dice despite the fact that Austin Ekeler was inactive due to an ankle injury and Joshua Kelly managed 12 yards on 11 carries in his place.
Beyond that, a peek at the stats shows Herbert completed 40 of 47 passes for 405 yards and three touchdowns and no picks while Allen had 18 grabs for 215 yards plus a 49-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams, who had seven catches for 121 yards of his own. With all that production it's hard to imagine the Chargers had to sweat out the victory, but that can happen when curious decisions are made. Making life even worse in LA was news postgame that Williams was lost for the season to a torn ACL. Nothing has come easy thus far for the 1-2 Chargers.
Kudos to C.J. Stroud, who picked up the first victory of his career on Sunday with a 37-17 road win over the Jaguars. Stroud was solid, completing 20 of 30 passes for 280 yards and a pair of touchdowns for the Texans. In three starts Stroud is hitting on 64.5 percent of his throws for 906 yards with four touchdowns and no picks, good for a passer rating of 98.0. The second overall pick is off to a decent start despite playing for a team that is often behind and forced to throw. Fellow rookie Tank Dell had five catches for 145 yards and a touchdown in the win in Jacksonville.
Could Deshaun Watson finally be showing signs of life in Cleveland? Coming off a disastrous Monday night performance in Pittsburgh, Watson completed 27 of 33 passes for 289 yards and a pair of touchdowns with no interceptions against a solid Titans defense in a 27-3 win. Watson also was forced to carry the offense with Nick Chubb lost for the season and the Browns running game nonexistent. It's been a slow return thus far as Watson has looked downright awful at times, but perhaps the win is a sign of better things to come in Cleveland.
The Bills have outscored opponents 75-13 in two wins following their opening night loss to the Jets. Josh Allen's four turnovers that night had many questioning if the Bills were on the decline, but that may have been premature given the back-to-back blowout victories. However, winning in convincing fashion hasn't really been in question for Buffalo, but coming on top in tight games has occasionally been a struggle. With a visit from Miami on tap for Sunday, perhaps Allen will get another chance to see if he can find a way to win a tight game.
- San Francisco (3-0) – The Giants threw everything at Brock Purdy Thursday night and it didn't matter.
- Miami (3-0) – The Dolphins won't continue piling up the points every week, but hats off to a 70 burger.
- Kansas City (2-1) – Patrick Mahomes & Co. were back in form against the lowly Bears.
- Buffalo (2-1) – The Bills defense turned up the heat on young Sam Howell, who had played well in the first two weeks.
- Philadelphia (3-0) – Eagles still don't look quite right but continue to get it done.
Team photographers David Silverman and Eric J. Adler present their favorite photos from the Patriots 15-10 win over the N.Y. Jets at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023.