Today was not a good day to be a Patriots fan.
The offense, which looked solid for a half, was unable to move the ball at all on a Jets defense that was missing its best player. The defense, on the other hand, was only too willing to let beleaguered gunslinger Mark Sanchez have a massive day. Added up together, the Patriots are now on the bus home to Gillette 1-1 on the season and in third place in the AFC East.
There is a lot of work to be done. After the jump, read on about why the Patriots lost this week...and what they can do to improve in the future.
To start the game, the Patriots looked extremely crisp. Tom Brady spread the ball all over the field and took the team inside the 30 yard line. However, the drive stalled, and Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal that would have given the Patriots the lead. Instead, the score remained knotted at 0.
This is one of the decisions that, while considered to be typical, irks me. When you are on the road, driving down the field, it seems to me that settling for a field goal sets a very complacent tone for the rest of the game. It was fourth and one from the Jets 14, and the Patriots had already converted on fourth down earlier in the drive. On the road against a strong defense, why not go all out for the score? Especially considering how well the Patriots were moving the ball on the Jets that possession.
The rest of the first half was relatively back and forth, though the Patriots defense did not play too badly. Cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Darius Butler defended deep to prevent the big play, leaving the middle of the field open for Mark Sanchez. The defensive line also was getting a surprisingly decent push, topped off by Gerard Warren picking up two sacks on the day, manhandling Damien Woody.
Sanchez spent much of the first half checking down to short routes. The linebackers did not do a great job of defending these; actually, all game those guys were a bit disappointing. I barely heard Jerod Mayo's name, Brandon Spikes was merely average, Tully Banta-Cain got decent push but was lost in the passing game, and Rob Ninkovich was atrocious, most notably when he missed a tackle on LaDanian Tomlinson which led to the "nail in the coffin" touchdown. The most active linebacker to me was Jermaine Cunningham, who looked pretty solid considering how injury prone he has been. He was a major part of one of Warren's two sacks, and I think he will be starting sooner rather than later. Also to be noted is that, on the Braylon Edwards touchdown pass, Darius Butler actually had pretty stellar coverage; Sanchez just threw it slightly better. Butler played worse as the game wore on.
As for the remainder of the first half, both offenses looked solid. The Jets were moving the ball well, taking what the Patriots defense gave them. On the other side of the ball, the Patriots were attacking the Jets perfectly. Tom Brady was abusing New York up the middle of the field, breaking off long gain after long gain up the gut. Six Patriot receivers (Kevin Faulk, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Aaron Hernandez, Randy Moss, Julian Edelman, and Wes Welker) touched the football on the drive, with Welker picking up the touchdown. It was Patriots football at its best; Brady spreading the ball around to all of his weapons.
The second touchdown drive was pure beauty. First, before that fateful pass which would end up changing the game (for the worse, I fear), Brady rifled a huge third down conversion to tight end Hernandez, who then ran with the rock down to the Jets' 34 yard line for a pickup of 46 yards. Hernandez, when he had an opportunity to shine, looked sensational today. He is a major matchup issue and looks like a wide receiver running with the ball. I really, really, REALLY hope that we see more of him as the season progresses, because he disappeared from the second half of today's game.
The touchdown was sensational. Randy Moss beat Darrelle Revis off the line of scrimmage and raced into the end zone, making a one handed catch on a perfect throw by Brady. It was a spark of the old 2007 Moss; heck, at that point, the entire team looked like the 2007 incarnation. It even caused Revis to pull-up and reinjure his hamstring, seemingly an added bonus.
The Jets then scored a field goal, which was critical; it mitigated any momentum that the Patriots would have had heading into the locker room. Nick Folk was a top kicker before he flamed out in Dallas; that was a great signing for the Jets. Overall, that put a slight damper on the halftime festivities, though I thought the Patriots would come out strong after the break.
They did not.
The first series of the second half was stellar. The Patriots brought pressure and sacked Sanchez on first down, and then forced two more mistakes to get the three and out. Granted, on that third down had Sanchez thrown the ball better, Jerricho Cotchery was wide open.
From that point onward, though, it was all Jets and Brady's mistakes. He was simply not the same quarterback as he was in the first half. Unlike last year, when he would tend to get Welker happy and simply stare down his short man, he got Moss happy. The interception was a nice play by Cromartie, but the route should not have been a pure fly. This was the second of two bad play calls by Bill O'Brien, and resulted in a turnover. Then, the Patriots defense got abused by Sanchez as he drove down the field and let Folk kick a field goal.
I am not going to dwell on the rest of the game too much; it is still painful. It is all a blur to me and, to be frank, I am sure that no one wants to read all of my innermost musings; suffice it to say that, from the interception, the game was over. However, what I can do is pose three questions that need to be considered, three things that have to be answered if the Patriots are to compete this year.
1. Who is this team's second cornerback?
I am as huge a Darius Butler fan as anyone, but he was not good today. I cannot even make the argument that he would be better in up-man coverage (as he is usually played off), but he was not good in that either. Granted, I would have had Devin McCourty play on Edwards and let Butler take Cotchery, but that is no excuse for the abysmal performance, especially after he was stellar against Chad Ochocinco for the first half in Cincinnati.
I still think that Butler has potential, and I hope that he learns from his mistakes. However, I am not sure he is ready to hold a starting job yet. The fact that a rookie is outplaying him speaks volumes. I would not be surprised if we trade for a veteran cornerback, or signed one off the street. Unless Terrence Wheatley is going to be the messiah once he gets healthy, we need a little help in this back seven. The fact that Butler was pulled for Kyle Arrington late speaks volumes.
2. When will Jerod Mayo take the next step?
I am sure that many Patriots fans blame Butler for the loss today, but there was one player that was more disappointing to me; Jerod Mayo. The captain (and the MIDDLE LINEBACKER) should not have only five tackles, two unassisted, against his team's main rival. He looks slow laterally and Spikes outplayed him today (albeit barely; he was not great either.) Mayo was one of the three worst starters on the field today along with Butler and Ninkovich. He was unable to contain LaDanian Tomlinson and seemed lethargic.
Bringing in Brandon Spikes should help Mayo from a play standpoint, and it seemed to do so last week. However, this week, neither was able to step up against a mediocre interior line for the Jets. Other than Nick Mangold, neither guard is special, and Gerard Warren proved that by blasting through the right side of the line on multiple occasions. Mayo has to man up and become that playmaker soon; otherwise, I think Spikes may overtake him...then locker room problems, and on-the-field problems, could ensue.
3. Where are the other receivers?
This is the one thing that has infuriated me about "Post Randy Moss and Wes Welker" Tom Brady; too often, he fixates on his big guns and does not distribute the ball to the little people.
Early in the game, Brady was spreading the ball around with a lot of success. The Jets could not defend the middle of the field, and the Patriots would exploit that. However, after the long Moss touchdown, Brady seemed too keen to go after Antonio Cromartie. Cromartie is only good at one aspect of football; running like a wide receiver and making interceptions. Brady played directly into his hand by lobbing the ball downfield to Moss over and over again.
The ironic thing is that Welker is usually the receiver that Brady fixates upon too much. However, today, Welker only touched the ball TWICE in the second half. That is ridiculous. This is the man who broke records against the Jets last year, and he only gets thrown to TWICE? Add in Aaron Hernandez, who put up over 100 yards receiving, almost all in the first half. Why did he only get one reception in the final 30 minutes? Brady missed Gronkowski once down the field but did not look back to him either. Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman were afterthoughts. In the second half, it was the Brady to Moss show, and it got ugly.
I miss the good old days. I miss 2003 and 2004, when Brady actually remembered how to spread the ball around on a consistent basis. I really hope that he can revert to that mindset, because forcing the ball to Moss (and, in other cases, forcing it to Welker) is not conducive to the Patriots being a deep playoff team. Brady has more weapons now than he has ever had in Foxboro; he should use all of them.
All of this being said, this team is still going to improve over time. The defense will get more game experience and become better for their travails. I even think that Darius Butler could improve if he gets his head on straight; with him, it is just the mental aspect that is passing him by. This was evidenced perfectly by the first pass interference penalty. He was in position to make the play, but he just shoved for no reason, and then got flagged. There is a reason why the coaching staff was so high on him in the offseason...he will improve. Chung, Meriweather, McCourty, Spikes, Brace, Cunningham, Mayo...all will improve. I hope the offense does too. I really do.
Next week is a game against the Buffalo Bills. Offensively, I want to see us try and use our tight ends more. The Bills have good cornerbacks and a mediocre pass rush; this is our chance to practice plays with Gronkowski and Hernandez. Defensively, I just hope we can play better. I would like McCourty to man up on Lee Evans, since he is better at preventing the big play. That leaves Butler on 6 foot 2 Steve Johnson, an interesting matchup to watch.
At the end of the day, there are no AFC playoff teams currently at 2-0. This team will get better over time. I would be fine going into the bye at 2-2. However, I am sure that we would all prefer 3-1.