Just about everything that could go wrong has gone wrong for the New England defense at the quarter pole of the 2017 season.
Blown assignments, poor tackling, a lack of communication…and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The Patriots are dead last in total defense (456.8 yard per game), with the next worst team, Indianapolis, over 50 yards per game better. The pass defense remains 32nd out of 32 teams at 324 yards per game and the rushing defense is 26th at 132.8.
Scoring defense, generally New England’s bread and butter, ranks second to last at 32 points per game. Only the Colts are worse at 34. The “bend don’t break” mentality has bent the Patriots into positions that defy the laws of physics.
“There’s a lot of things we need to work on, communication being one of them,” linebacker Dont’a Hightower said Monday afternoon.
Take your pick from any number of big plays the New England defense has allowed that could be chalked up to a miscommunication so far. In the season opening 42-27 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs – the most points allowed by the Patriots under Bill Belichick – Alex Smith threw for a pair of touchdowns 75 yards or greater.
Allegedly, the Carolina Panthers offense was supposed to be a reprieve for the New England defense. Instead, Cam Newton and Co. left town with their best offensive output of the season and Newton resembling the version of himself that won MVP honors in 2015.
Fozzy Whittaker’s 28-yard touchdown catch yesterday may represent the nadir for New England thus far. Trailing 10-3 with 9:41 to go in the second quarter, Newton easily completed a slip screen to Whittaker on the left side, where no Patriot defender came within even 5 yards of him until he crossed the goal line.
But had Newton wanted, he had an option wide open downfield as well in Ed Dickson. Stephon Gilmore was lined up as the corner to the left, with safety Devin McCourty lined up over Gilmore. Each player departed their post with an eye towards the middle, leaving the left third of the field wide open.
Whatever adjustments the Patriots tried to make at halftime, they didn’t take. The Panthers drove 66 yards in six plays out of the break and would have come away with at least a field goal attempt if not for Jonathan Stewart’s fumble (forced by Trey Flowers, recovered by Elandon Roberts). Carolina scored touchdowns on each of its next two possessions, each drive over 60 yards in length.
In fact, after Newton’s first quarter interception to Malcolm Butler, the Panthers had five straight drives that went 64 yards or more.
Devin Funchess caught a 16-yard touchdown pass on a slant in which he beat Butler in coverage one-on-one to give the Panthers a 23-16 lead with 2:47 to go in the third quarter. Newton looked Butler’s way again on Carolina’s next scoring drive, when he completed a pass to Kelvin Benjamin for 39 yards down to the New England 19. That play set up the 50th rushing touchdown of Newton’s career two plays later, when he powered through the middle on a read-option from the 7-yard line.
The Patriots have only eight sacks on the season, or an average of two per game. The team met those totals yesterday, with Hightower and Kyle Van Noy getting to Newton, but should have had a third.
Deatrich Wise Jr. brought Newton down on third-and-7 with the game tied at 30-30 with 2:23 remaining in regulation, but an illegal hands to the face penalty on Gilmore negated the sack.
Gilmore had two such penalties in yesterday’s game, a continuation of the uneven beginning to his career in New England. He did not start the second half with the base defense but was forced back into the lineup due to Eric Rowe’s groin injury.
“I mean, look, I think everybody on our team has room for improvement; coaches, players, all of us, so you can put everybody into that group,” Belichick said when asked if Gilmore is the player he thought he was when he signed him in free agency last March. “We all need to work harder. We all need to do a better job.”
The Patriots have started 2-2 before – most recently and perhaps most notably in 2014, when the team went on to win the Super Bowl, but had a full week to prepare for its Week Five game vs. the Cincinnati Bengals.
This time, they’ll hardly have a chance to catch their breath before playing on Thursday Night Football at Tampa Bay this week. It’s a formidable outfit the Buccaneers (2-1) have themselves, with 2015 No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston quarterbacking an offense that’s ninth in yards per game (362.2) and third in passing (277.7).
Could a short week make it easier in any way for the Patriots to put Sunday’s debacle behind them that much faster, or will the quick turnaround make it even harder for the defense to figure it out?
“[It’s] as difficult as you make it,” safety Patrick Chung said of how difficult playing on Thursday night can be. “We’ll just forget about the last game and buckle down and be professional and just forget about it and move on. Things will go smoother, but that’s really on us.”
Since Thursday Night Football became a season-long reality in 2012, the Patriots are 5-0 (season opening Thursday night games are not part of the official TNF record).
But the Patriots have played at Gillette Stadium in four of their five TNF contests, and all but one game has come against a familiar foe within the AFC East. And even the outlier in that example is the Houston Texans, who might as well be a divisional rival for the Patriots at this point.
There’s virtually no familiarity with Tampa Bay, whom New England faces just once every four years.
That doesn’t seem to matter to Hightower, who said the Patriots need to do a better job of holding each other accountable. The time for that is now, not next week, he said.
“It’s just accountability,” Hightower said. “It’s something that I myself and the other 10 guys need to do. We’ve got to hold each other to a higher standard of that and that starts today. We know where we’ve got to be and what we’ve got to do. The time is now; there’s no more ‘next week’ or any of that.”