Through the first four games of the season, the New England Patriots offense has scored a total of 129 points. Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan and newcomer Brandin Cooks have hauled in some dramatic and game-altering catches. At age 40, Tom Brady is still the best quarterback in football. Through four games, his passer rating is 116.6. On third down, (which has historically been a challenge for the Patriots,) he is having one of his best statistical seasons ever. Brady is 27-39; throwing for 353 yards and 4 touchdowns, en route to a 131.7 passer rating.
Therefore, it can be assumed that the Pats are 4-0 and steamrolling towards a perfect 19-0 season, correct?
Not so fast…
While reports of the Patriots demise will be greatly exaggerated over the next few days, the reality is that they currently sit at 2-2. They are currently tied with the New York Jets for second place in the division. They are looking up at the first place Buffalo Bills, who are sporting a record of 3-1; including impressive wins over the Denver Broncos and the Atlanta Falcons.
Thus, Patriots fans everywhere are left to ponder the question…how did this happen?
Winning is a team effort, and one would be remiss not to admit that the Patriots have left some offensive points on the board. However, the offense has played well-enough, in all four games, to earn a victory. The defense, on the other hand, certainly has not.
Head coach Bill Belichick, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and rest of the coaching staff, head into the season’s quarter pole in search of answers to an unfamiliar question. How have the Patriots produced the statistically-worst defense in the National Football League?
So far, the Pats have given up an average of 32 points per game and 456.8 yards per game. This amounts to 7.2 yards per play, or in layman’s terms, a first down every other play. Fans and media alike have used the term ‘miscommunication’ to describe this turn of events. However, it takes a lot more than a lack of communication to yield the type of defense, such as the one that the Pats consistently have for the season’s first four weeks.
It’s a given that poor communication will lead to the types of broken coverage that we have seen lately. However, it has been painfully obvious that the Patriots secondary has looked poorly prepared, confused, and even lost, at times. In fact, communication has sometimes looked like the least of their problems. And, it has led to the defense surrendering some big plays for big yardage and a mountain of points allowed.
In short, their opponents have found that scoring on the Patriots has been an easy thing to do. The Pats have surrendered a total of 128 points in four games. The Chiefs, Saints, Texans and Panthers have averaged a 69.7 percent completion rate, as well as a 43.5 percent conversion rate on third down against the Patriots. Even for a defense that often embodies the mantra ‘bend but don’t break,’ those are alarming statistics. In his post game press conference, Belichick reiterated the sentiment, “we just have to be better.” That is definitely an understatement.
Blame it on the new guy?
Cornerback Stephon Gilmore signed a $65 million contract with the Patriots this past offseason. Frankly, a big payday like that leads to big expectations. Although his time here has been brief, Gilmore has yet to fulfill his end of his $13 million yearly salary. On Sunday, against the Carolina Panthers, Gilmore was to be covering both Fozzy Whittaker and Devin Funchess, when each man was left wide open for a touchdown reception. Adding further damage to his cause, Gilmore was called for two illegal hands-to-the-face penalties. One of those penalties negated a third-down sack on the Panthers’ game-winning drive. That would-be defensive stop could have handed the ball back to a red-hot Tom Brady and the Patriots offense. Based on the collective evidence, it seems to be easy to point the accusatory finger at the new ingredient.
How about the rest of the guys???
Despite the negative press he has received as of late, Gilmore is far from the only problem that the Pats have on defense. The remainder of the secondary has been a shell of its former self. Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, two of the league’s most reliable defenders in 2016, have often been out of position and frequently beaten in coverage, this year. In addition, Gilmore’s counterpart, Malcolm Butler, has already been benched earlier in the season for poor effort and play. The one time Super Bowl hero and Pro-Bowler has a wealth of talent. However, much like the defense as a whole, he has yet to showcase that talent in one complete game, from beginning to end. Bluntly put, a quarter of the season is now over…and the Patriots need one hundred percent of Malcom Butler each and every game.
The Patriots defensive problems, however, do not end with the secondary. The Pats front seven, particularly the pass rush, has not been able to put consistent pressure on the quarterback. Their pass rush tandem of Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise have begun to emerge, but their contributions have been sporadic. In order for the secondary to find a rhythm, the defensive ends (and even the linebackers) need to put pressure on the quarterback. The return of Dont’a Hightower should continue to help, as he has been known to be the Patriots defensive director on the field. However, a greater effort from every defender is sorely needed. Coaching and direction may put the plan in place, but the players ultimately have to make the plays. Until now, they haven’t done that.
To their credit, the players know the severity of the task that lies ahead. This team is truly unafraid of hard work. They will certainly work hard for these next few days as they prepare for their Thursday night showdown with Tampa Bay. After Sunday’s game, Malcolm Butler offered the following opinion of his and the team’s effort:
“Basically everybody’s not on the same page. There needs to be a sense of urgency right now because a quarter of the season is gone away already. It’s time to pick it up.’’
Safety Duron Harmon echoed his teammate’s sentiments by saying:
“Obviously what we’re doing is not good enough so we need to go take a look in the mirror tonight and just look and realize are we doing enough to win? Are we doing enough to be good on defense? Are we doing enough to be a sound football team?”
One can only hope that the Patriots’ soul-searching will lead to a stronger showing on Thursday.
The Bucs are up next…‘Shiver Me Timbers’
As if a short turn-around was not a daunting enough task, the Patriots next opponent provides an equally tough test in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs collection of offensive skill players is quite impressive. Quarterback Jameis Winston, the first overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft, has certainly provided the Bucs with the franchise signal caller, for which they had hoped. In order to complement Winston’s talents this season, the Bucs have tried to surround Winston with diverse receiving options and more speed. They added DeSean Jackson (a three-time Pro Bowler) and third-round draft choice Chris Godwin at wide receiver, as well as first-round selection O.J. Howard at tight end. They still have Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Evans, tight end Cameron Brate, and reliable slot receiver Adam Humphries. These were the Bucs top three receivers in 2016. Tampa Bay will also regain the services of running back, Doug Martin, who will be active after serving a three-game NFL suspension. The potency of the Bucs offense, coupled with the severe struggles of the Patriots defense, seems to be a disastrous recipe for the Patriots. Thursday night will provide the Patriots with yet another tough test, so soon after Sunday’s bitter loss to Carolina.
Will it be ‘Déjà vu All Over Again?’
With only a short time to ‘repair and prepare,’ the Pats look like they might be headed for a tough night in Tampa. However, it is important to remember this this is a veteran team, led by a coaching staff that is better at making adjustments than anyone else in the league. Every time it seems like the Patriots are doomed, they rebound and are usually the ones standing at the end. If that isn’t enough, their quarterback continues to play at an unprecedented level, and is more than capable of leading his team to victory on offense. On the other side of the football, the prognosticators (myself included) can speculate for days about what is wrong with the Patriots defense. However, those who know best are the ones inside their own locker room. The coaches and players have to communicate better. They have to prepare better. And…above all…they have to execute better. It’s a short week, and the season is getting shorter with each passing game. In recent memory, no one has been better than the Patriots at turning seemingly insurmountable obstacles into victory.
Time is of the essence…
It’s time to do it again!
-Mike D’Abate is the Managing Editor for cover32.com/Chargers and covers the Los Angeles Chargers and New England Patriots. He is also a National Content Writer for cover32.com.