FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – After two games, we learned a couple things about this year's Patriots. In Week 1, they showed the ability to run the ball effectively, while hardly throwing the ball at all in a win over Miami. Last week at Seattle, they were forced to throw significantly more – and for the most part, with success – while struggling to game ground with the rushing attack. Defensively, they've had their issues in pass coverage, which was supposed to be the strength of this entire team.
Could New England put everything together against the banged-up, somewhat surprising 2-0 visiting Raiders?
If so, they'd have to go about it without two key pieces on offense: starting center David Andrews and running back James White, both co-captains. Andrews suffered an injury to his right (snapping) hand last week in Seattle, while White continues to be with his grieving family following the sudden death of his father from a car accident that also hospitalized his mother.
In Andrews' stead, left guard Joe Thuney slid over to center, while rookie Michael Onwenu occupied Thuney's normal spot on the line.
"Thuney is just showing everyone why he's one of our most dependable players," WR Julian Edelman told reporters afterward, "to be able to go in and play center, switch it up, and show his versatility, and contribute in a huge way."
"He came in there and did a great job," remarked RB Sony Michel. "[Thuney] practiced as hard as he can all week. Stepping in to a new position. Sometimes, you have to adjust and that's exactly what he did, and he did it well."
In the early going, though, Las Vegas owned both lines of scrimmage, stuffing a number of Patriots rush attempts and flushing QB Cam Newton out of the pocket for minimal gains. Offensively, the Raiders' Josh Jacobs proved elusive running the ball, while QB Derek Carr found a few open receivers in New England's secondary.
It looked like New England stifled the second Raiders drive by recovering a fumble in the red zone, but Newton threw an ill-advised INT shortly thereafter, giving Vegas the ball back at nearly the exact same spot. The Patriots managed to escape with only a field goal surrendered and the first quarter ended Raiders 3, Patriots 0.
"I don't think we were all that concerned," edge rusher Chase Winovich maintained. "The coaches do a great job of making sure that we're prepared for anything. If we got rattled off one or two good series, then we wouldn't be and we aren't the team that I think we are. It's just a matter of going out there and showing it. Today we did."
During the second quarter, rookie RB J.J. Taylor provided a bit of a spark for New England's offense, which tied the game with a 33-yard Nick Folk field goal. The Patriots might have had more, but several of Newton's passes were either off the mark or batted down by Raiders defenders.
Vegas wasn't doing itself any favors, either. On their next possession, the Raiders coughed up the ball again when Winovich stripped Carr of the football, setting the New England offense up in Vegas territory. Newton continued getting passes deflected, however, so, the Patriots settled for another Folk field goal, from 23 out, to take their first lead midway through the second quarter.
"At the end of the day, it's football," added Winovich, "and each team is constantly making adjustments as the game goes on, based off what we're seeing."
The Patriots adjusted well enough to control both the ball and the clock throughout most of the second quarter, which seemed to end with Newton finding RB Rex Burkhead on a pass that Burkhead niftily took through the Raiders defense before diving into the end zone for the game's first touchdown.
Yet, a Stephon Gilmore pass interference penalty with seconds to go in the half set the Raiders up nicely, deep in Patriots territory. A Carr-to-Hunter Renfrow TD pass was then taken off the board because replay showed Renfrow down just short of the goal line, but it only postponed the inevitable. Carr found TE Foster Moreau on the next play, wide open in the end zone.
Overall Sunday afternoon, New England's defense did a solid job limiting Vegas TE Darren Waller, he of the 12 catches for 103 yards and a touchdown last week on Monday Night Football and six grabs for 45 yards in the opener. Hobbled by a knee injury this week, however, Waller wasn't nearly as dangerous. New England used a variety of players – mainly DB Joejuan Williams – to shadow Waller, who had no targets during the first half and finished with only two receptions for a total of nine yards.
"Going into the game, he was definitely… a point of emphasis," Winovich acknowledged. "If you go through the number of targets and catches he had in previous weeks, he's definitely been a problem for opposing defenses. It's something we definitely had to account for."
Following intermission, Las Vegas started the third quarter with the football and looked to be moving into scoring position, but kicker Daniel Carlson just barely pushed a 43-yard field goal wide left.
New England then took advantage. RB Sony Michel easily had his best day of this short season thus far, both running and catching the football (nine carries, 117 yards; two grabs for 23), but it was Burkhead who found the end zone again on the ensuing possession following Carlson's miss, helping give the Patriots a 10-point lead late in the third.
By the fourth quarter, New England fully turned the tables on Las Vegas in the trenches. The Patriots were dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and added another Folk three-pointer to extend their lead to 13 points entering the final quarter. When it seemed like the Raiders were threatening to score inside the Patriots' red zone, New England's D came up with an important third-down stop to force a field goal.
The Patriots took over on offense and the ground game asserted itself once more, with Burkhead ended the drive in the Vegas end zone for his third score of the afternoon. This essentially ended the competitive portion of the contest.
"Tough loss against Seattle last week. So, we were just looking to bounce back as a team and establish the run game," Burkhead told reporters post-game. "The offensive line did a tremendous job. The receivers out wide – N'Keal [Harry] and Julian, [Damiere] Byrd – just finishing blocks was tremendous for us. When those guys do that, it makes our job easier.
"J.J. definitely had some great runs, and Sony, of course, as well. We fed off each other. We love competing, but we root for one another when we're out there making plays."
In the final five minutes, New England kept the pressure on Carr, strip-sacking him again this time in the end zone for what was initially dubbed a safety, but after replay review, reversed to a touchdown for defensive end Deatrich Wise.
The Patriots felt content to allow the Raiders to move the ball thereafter, playing a prevent defense that eventually allowed Vegas to score a touchdown that had no impact on the ultimate outcome.
"You talk about complementary football," safety and co-captain Devin McCourty observed later. "Our offense goes and scores, the kickoff team does a good job tackling around the 10, then there's a penalty [on the Raiders], and we get a strip-sack… that is how we want to play. There's no good secondary without a good pass rush, no good pass rush without a good secondary.
"We'll have a huge test next week [at Kansas City] with [Chiefs QB Patrick] Mahomes. We'll have our hands full and we'll have to continue that pass rush-and-coverage, marrying it up."
The New England Patriots take on the Las Vegas Raiders in a regular season game at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, September 27, 2020.