Think about how bad things could be for the Patriots if not for the performance of a certain 40-year-old quarterback through three weeks.
Tom Brady has won back-to-back AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors, completing 55 of 74 passes for 825 yards and eight touchdown passes between the two games. He’s needed to be at his best, particularly in last week’s thrilling 38-33 victory over the Houston Texans.
If not for Brady’s go-ahead touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks with 23 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the issues of New England’s defense wouldn’t just be more magnified; the ant hill would already be up in flames.
The Patriots rank dead last in the NFL in total defense at 461 yards per game, passing defense at 330.7 yards per game, and aren’t much better against the run. New England is 26th out of 32 teams in rushing defense, allowing 130.3 yards per contest.
Perhaps most alarming are the scoring numbers. Just a year after leading the NFL in scoring defense, the Patriots are dead last there now, too, allowing an average of 31.7 points per game. New England has given up 30 points twice already after doing so just once all of last season and the 95 points allowed through three games are by far the most in the Bill Belichick era.
“There’s stuff that leads up to giving up points,” cornerback Eric Rowe said of the defense as a whole. “That’s the kind of stuff we cover in the film room, a breakdown in coverage or something with the run. That stuff leads up to [teams] scoring, so that’s the stuff we need to get right first before we can say ‘we can’t let them score.’ It’s ‘how.’ Either fix the coverage, fix the run, fix the mental mistakes, stuff like that.”
It’s a sample size of just three games and it’s also not without precedent for the Patriots to make a deep postseason run without much help from the defense. Look no further than the 2011 team, which ranked 31st against the pass and still came this close to winning Super Bowl XLVI.
However, it’s been documented what Texans rookie quarterback DeShaun Watson did to the Patriots last week in a losing effort. He carried the ball eight times for 41 yards but it was the ability to keep passing plays alive with his legs that nearly cost the Patriots the game.
This week’s opponent, the Carolina Panthers, features a mobile threat of its own in 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton. The 2-1 Panthers are struggling mightily on the offensive end – the team is 30th in passing offense and Newton’s 69.7 passer rating is 29th out of 32 qualified quarterbacks.
Newton doesn’t seem to be doing much carrying the ball these days, either. His yards per carry have declined every year since a career-high 5.8 in 2012 down to 3.3 through three games this season.
But Belichick believes that Newton remains the hardest quarterback to deal with in terms of mobility, citing his performance the last time the Patriots and Panthers met in 2013. Newton, who rushed for 62 yards in the Monday Night Football game in Charlotte, is the last quarterback to top even 50 yards on the ground against New England.
“I think when you’re talking about mobile quarterbacks, guys that are tough to handle, tackle, can throw, run, make good decision – I mean, I would put Newton at the top of the list,” Belichick said at his Wednesday morning press conference. “Not saying that there aren’t a lot of other good players that do that, but I would say, of all the guys we play or have played recently in the last couple of years, I would definitely put him – he’s the hardest guy to deal with. He makes good decisions, he can run, he’s strong, he’s hard to tackle. He can do a lot of different things, beat you in a lot of different ways. We saw that in the game down there in ’13, so I would put him at the top of the list. Not saying the other guys aren’t a problem, because they are, but he’s public enemy No. 1.”
Containing Newton seems to be atop the priority list for the Patriots this week, but that alone won’t fully fix the defensive struggles. Belichick said that each issue must first be identified and then addressed in order of importance.
“Something’s got to be one, something’s got to be two, something’s got to be, whatever, 18,” Belichick said. “Start with the most important things first, always. It’s always the case. We’re not going to start at 19 and work our way up to 18 and work our way up to 17. I mean, that would be a ridiculous way to approach it. I can’t imagine doing that. So, if we have a problem, you take the thing that’s most important and try to solve that first.”
“It’s a process,” safety Jordan Richards said of improving the defense. “We’re always trying to play the best football that we can. Every week we go in there to compete and to learn from the mistakes that we make in order to have a better performance next time around.”
It hasn’t been all doom and gloom for the Patriots on the defensive side of the ball. Deatrich Wise Jr. is the team’s lone draft pick from April who has played a snap for New England this season – third rounders Tony Garcia and Derek Rivers are on IR, and sixth rounder Conor McDermott is now in Buffalo – but he’s been arguably the defensive MVP for the Patriots through three games. Wise had a sack in each of his first two games for the Patriots and while he failed to record one against the Texans, his pressure of Houston quarterback DeShaun Watson was the catalyst for Stephon Gilmore’s interception.
Trey Flowers leads the team with three sacks, nearly halfway to his total from last season (seven) already. Flowers and Wise, who each played college football at Arkansas, will be a formidable pass rushing duo not just for the remainder of this season, but hopefully for years to come. The emergence of the young Razorbacks has made the departures of Chris Long, Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich from the edge at least somewhat easier to take.
Add it all together and there’s too much talent on the roster for the Patriots to continue to rank near the bottom of the league in every major defensive category for much longer. The season’s not even a quarter old and plenty of time remains to figure it out.
Some signs of life on Sunday would go a long way in assuaging fears that the historic efforts of Tom Brady at age 40 don’t go for naught.