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The Patriots let a sure victory slip away on Sunday in Seattle. The culprits were high in number.
The wagon has some broken axles, fans. And there's plenty of blame to go around.
In assessing the Patriots' miserable, are-you-kidding-me, 24-23 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, make sure to look at everyone on that sideline. Because outside of a couple of individuals, this one was a group effort through and through, from the head coach to the quarterback to the rookie safeties to the punter to the last guy on the 53-man roster.
If you don't believe that, consider the following:
- Tom Brady threw 58 passes but averaged just 6.8 yards per attempt, had two second half interceptions and posted a passer rating of 79.3.
- The running game, responsible for nearly 500 yards the previous two weeks, managed to net 87 yards on just 26 attempts (3.3 yards per attempt).
- The offense ran 85 plays but only scored 23 points and was 1-of-6 in the red zone, scoring six points in its final eight possessions.
- The defense has allowed 15 TD passes in six games, a pace that will obliterate the NFL record of most allowed in a season, which is 38.
- That same defense allowed the opposing QB, who came into the game the 30th ranked passer in the league, to average over 10 yards per pass attempt, throw three TDs against zero picks and post a passer rating of 133.7.
- On his final kick of the game, Zoltan Mesko hit a low liner for just 39 yards which was returned 25 yards (a 14-yard net) and set up the winning score.
- The Patriots used their final timeout on defense, with 2:06 left, because they had 12 men on the field. That's Andy Reid/Norv Turner/Jason Garrett level bad coaching.
There's more. Much more. Yes, the Pats have lost three games by a total of four points and the fact that maybe a handful of plays have kept them from being 6-0 is a glass half full way of looking at their season thus far.
A glass half empty way to look at it is that they have the same record as the Bills and Dolphins through six games and have seven losses in games (including playoffs) they've led in the final five minutes since 2009.
So with that, let's get to this week's report card.
Brady didn't play well at all in the game despite his gaudy passing numbers. But things really went to hell in the fourth quarter and it's possible you could trace that back to the roughing the passer penalty that ended the third. Brady was speared in an uppercut fashion right on the chin by Seahawks' defensive lineman Jason Jones. After the hit - in the fourth quarter - Brady was 5-of-12 for 81 yards and an interception as well as his second costly intentional grounding penalty of the game. He was short arming passes, skipping some as short as a couple of yards. He threw two picks, his first in 185 pass attempts, one in the end zone, when he laced a rocket through Wes Welker's hands even though Welker was standing about 10 feet in front of him that was snared by Seahawks safety Earl Thomas. There were overthrows too, as well as poor decision making (the first pick, a deep outside seam throw to a blanketed Deion Branch had no chance of succeeding) and awful clock management, which is certainly coaching but also, at least in part, is on Brady. The two grounding penalties killed the Pats, with the one at the end of the first half being worse. But the fact that Brady did not call a timeout a couple of snaps earlier on that drive, when at least 15 seconds ticked away following a completion to Welker that got the Pats to the Seattle 9. A timeout there would have given the Pats at least one more chance to score there and eliminate the need to rush the final play of the half which wound up costing them that grounding penalty. Brady has been superb for the majority of this season. Whether the shot to the head by Jones was to blame or not, Sunday was not in keeping with that pattern at all.
Running Backs: 2.5
Stevan Ridley came crashing back to earth when he fumbled late in the Pats win over Denver last week and he didn't do much to start a new ascent against Seattle. He dropped a wide open, easy dump off in the flat in the first quarter, a play that was almost as bad as Willis McGahee's drop last week. And after that, he did nothing, generating just 34 yards on 16 carries (2.1 YPA). Part of the problem was the decision to eschew the incredible balance on offense the Pats had achieved in the previous two weeks and throw more than twice as much as they ran. And the Seahawks run defense came as advertised, playing incredibly fast and aggressive all afternoon, eliminating a lot of chances for Ridley to find much room. And it didn't help that even when the Pats were in a jumbo offensive set (extra tight ends, Dan Connolly at fullback), they still couldn't open much space. But Ridley, if he's going to be a consistent, elite back, has to come up with more that 2.1 yards per attempt, even against a stout defensive front. Brandon Bolden was solid before leaving with a troublesome knee, gaining just six fewer yards than Ridley on 10 less carries. It stands to reason that if Bolden had stayed in the game (he was hurt covering a kickoff), he may have wound up playing more than Ridley did. And Danny Woodhead once again proved his worth with a couple of very tough plays, including a nine-yard run on which he seemed to drag a Seattle defender who looked to be three times his size at least four yards and a screen pass on which he navigated through a maze of giants to squeeze out a tough first down. When used correctly, Woodhead is still an important weapon.
Wide Receivers: 5
If anyone would care to engage in a discussion regarding whether or not Welker is among the absolute toughest players in the NFL, let's have at it. This guy is endlessly incredible, a great player who was one of the only bright spots for the Pats. In addition to his requisite 10 catches, another 138 yards and a TD (a fantastic, over the shoulder catch on a deep pass hauled in completely in stride), he also got his clock cleaned more than once and just got up and kept playing. Seahawks corner Brandon Browner laid him out in the second quarter with one of the more violent (but totally legal) hits you'll ever see and Welker (who is six inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than Browner) not only held on to the ball for a seven yard gain, but missed just two snaps afterward. If Welker is not on this team next season, so much of its toughness, heart and resiliency will be gone with him. Elsewhere, Brandon Lloyd continues to impress in a major way. He's a master of sideline footwork and is catching everything that comes his way these days. And that full on dive for a pass out of bounds that he made late (which subsequently resulted in a bruised shoulder) was as good a catch as you'll see, whether it counted or not. The Pats need not worry about what they have at this spot (assuming Lloyd is healthy). Their top two receivers are top notch.
Tight Ends: 4
Aaron Hernandez returned to action and had an immediate impact, making six catches including a TD. He didn't handle a high throw from Brady on the Pats final possession, though it was slightly overthrown and came in really hot from not too far away. It's hard to say what kind of impact Hernandez really had on this game given his limited snaps (38 of 85) and the fact that Brady was able to spread the ball around to eight receivers. He's still a major weapon and it would have been nice to see Brady go to him more often in the second half, particularly in the red zone, where the Pats had so many issues. Rob Gronkowski is clearly playing hurt and he got tagged right in the back on one play that hurt just to watch. He grabbed six passes for 61 yards and was open in the right corner of the end zone on that late second quarter grounding penalty play. Going forward, now that Hernandez is back, it will be interesting to see if Gronk gets more time off (he played 70 of 85 plays on Sunday) in order to manage his health issues. Big ups to him for having the toughness to play through them and still contribute. And more big ups to Daniel Fells, who made a sensational, diving, finger tip grab for a 35-yard gain in the third quarter. Guy can catch as well as block.
Offensive Line: 3
Brady was sacked just once and only hit five times even though he threw 58 passes. But the O-line didn't have one of its better games. Nate Solder was clearly worn down in the second half as Chris Clemons started having his way bull rushing the second year left tackle and on one play even looked like he was the one who knocked Brady down. These 80-85 play games may be tiring the Pats' linemen out a bit. Still, pass blocking wasn't the issue in this game. The past two weeks, when the Pats trampled the Bills and Broncos, the line was able to dominate smaller defenses. But against the Seahawks bigger, more aggressive front seven, there was no traction and not much room. And when the Pats needed to line up and run the ball to kill the clock late in the game, which is where true "running teams" make their money, they couldn't do it. On the second to last possession of the game, on which two first downs probably would have sealed it, they gained two yards on first and second downs combined and that was with the jumbo package on the field. Not good at all. What this game showed about the running game and the guys who pave the way for Ridley and Bolden is that they have some work to do when they aren't rolling over nickel and dime looks by lighter, opposing defenses. Finally, huge ups to Logan Mankins, who, like Gronk, is clearly hurting, yet out there playing almost every down regardless.
Defensive Line: 3.5
There was pressure from the front four, just not enough. But before we get to that, let's give credit to the run stuffers. Marshawn Lynch was shut down, gaining just 41 yards on 15 attempts, a season low for him by a mile. Neither Vince Wilfork nor Kyle Love put up very impressive tackle numbers but they both took up enough manpower on the Seattle O-line that there were plenty of opportunities for others to clean up. Chandler Jones had another beastly game, leading the team in tackles, posting two more sacks, forcing his third fumble of the season and drilling Seattle QB Russell Wilson three more times while playing every snap. He was a one man band in terms of getting to the QB though. Jermaine Cunningham started at defensive end with Rob Ninkovich forced to play linebacker thanks to Dont'a Hightower's injury and he looked less like he's looked for the better part of this season and more like the invisible man he was last year. He was a pretty big drop off from what Ninkovich has offered for the majority of this season in terms of being a bookend for Jones. The Pats need to get more consistent pressure on opposing QBs to save their woeful secondary any more embarrassment. And they need it from someone other than just Jones.
For any good thing done by a Pats linebacker in this game, there was something done poorly. Brandon Spikes continues to be a force against the run, showing not only a penchant for ferocious hits but also an innate ability to read running plays and which gap to close off. He made a couple of huge sticks in the Seattle backfield and stuff like that is his specialty. But the other side of the coin shows a continued weakness in coverage and the occasional undisciplined play (his roughing the passer penalty added 15 yards to a 50-yard gain). And Jerod Mayo may have forced and recovered a fumble, but he also whiffed as badly as you'll ever see a supposedly elite linebacker whiff on an open field tackle when Wilson deked him out of his jock on Seattle's first quarter TD drive. And Ninkovich made a few tackles but no plays of any real import. Here's hoping he's back where he belongs at defensive end this week.
Defensive Backs: 1
As easy as it would be to continue piling on the worst secondary in the NFL, we'll refrain. It's all out there for everyone to see. These guys can get called for pass interference way down the field for not looking for the ball or let themselves get beat by three steps by receivers who fall down at the line of scrimmage or never, ever, ever be in the right position to help over the middle from the safety spot, or give up more 20-plus yard plays than any other team in the league or have a sole responsibility to not let a receiver get behind them deep yet do it anyway or have no clue how to play a pass when it's in the air or never, ever break up a deep pass even when they're in position without getting flagged until kingdom come. First round picks, second round picks, undrafted free agents, whoever. None of them even look competent, let alone can play at even an average level. Why every opposing team doesn't throw downfield against this secondary on every single play is a complete mystery. And we're going on four years of the same thing now. Hey, at least the No. 1 corner is a good tackler against the run. Whoop dee damn do.
Special Teams/Intangibles/Coaching: 1
There were some excellent punt returns by Welker and a good job kicking field goals and kickoffs by Stephen Gostkowski. And that botched snap on a punt by the Seahawks which led to the fateful, end of second quarter grounding penalty was handled well by that unit. But Mesko's awful final punt cost the Pats big time, as did the lousy coverage on that return. And guess what? The Pats didn't return a kickoff past their own 20 again. Who knew?
But the biggest reason for this bad grade is on Bill Belichick and his staff. Really, 58 throws against 26 runs? Did they not see the previous two games? Sure, the Seahawks are far better against the run than Denver or Buffalo. We've covered that already. But the Pats basically cashed out on running in the first quarter, ending the first half with 30 pass attempts against just 10 runs. The blame for not executing the running plays called later in the game, particularly in that fourth quarter, lies on the players. But the fact that they'd barely even tried to run leading up to that can't have helped. You can't just flip the switch and start ripping off seven, eight-yard gains.
And the abominable showing in terms of situational football and clock management was mind-boggling. If you think the comparisons to such frauds as Reid and Garrett listed above were harsh, you're wrong. The way the end of the first half was handled was just as bad for Belichick as it was for Brady. Letting all that time run off without calling a timeout was brutal. The defensive timeout six seconds shy of the two-minute warning was even worse; having 12 men on the field due to confusion over a substitution is unacceptable any time let alone in that scenario. And don't forget, they had to burn their second timeout earlier in the fourth because the play clock was running down and they hadn't gotten the call in. These things never happen to the Pats. Ever. That's what makes them so tough to understand. And we haven't even mentioned that they were in a base look on defense for Seattle's final scoring drive, when everyone on earth knew they'd be throwing on every down. Bizarre, to say the least.
There's also the issue of what happens to the offense late in games when just a couple first downs will seal it up yet aren't made. The Pats can't finish and that's on the coaches as much as it is on the players and is the difference today between 6-0 and 3-3. And what about the defensive backs? Why do they all seem to get worse instead of better? Is it how they're coached? Or are they all so irretrievably stupid that their natural talent is completely undermined by their inability to take coaching and even slightly play properly? Either way, the answer is not good. Not good at all.
The Pats will bounce back from all of this. They've won 29 of 36 games, including playoffs, over the past two seasons with most of the same players and coaches. The bounce back will likely start this week against the Jets.
Still, these are real issues at the feet of the coach, the quarterback and those who fall in line behind them. And after a loss as bad as the one on Sunday, they must be brought up.