Before we get started examining the Patriots' horrific 20-18 loss to the Arizona Cardinals in their home opener on Sunday, let's first offer ourselves a small dose of perspective.
There are 14 games left on the schedule. In each of the last two seasons, the Pats lost games within the first three weeks of the season that they should have won, both were division games and in both seasons combined, the wound up 27-5 with two AFC East titles and a Super Bowl appearance. In other words, even though every game matters, things could be worse for this team and there's a long way to go.
That aside, it's tough to think of many regular season losses in the past 10 years much worse than this one. Sunday was a first class stinkbomb from the top to the bottom, from the coaches to the kicker to the 53rd man on the active roster.
There were some positives. The defense showed again that it's much improved. Stevan Ridley wasn't as dynamic as he was in Tennessee during Week 1 but still looks like a lead back. And Wes Welker, starting or not, appears to be capable of still being himself, even if he's losing snaps to Julian Edelman.
That's about it. The Pats were lousy for long, head-scratching stretches on Sunday, and that's discounting Aaron Hernandez's ankle injury, which could keep him out a month or more. Hopefully everyone all the way down the line will spend a lot of time watching the tape and getting as much out of it as possible before this Sunday's prime time showcase against the Ravens in Baltimore, a rematch of last year's AFC Championship. There's no way to know if the no-show against Arizona was related to such a big game in the next spot on the schedule, but it could have been. What's for sure is that an effort like Sunday's against the Ravens will get the Pats blown out, not with a chance to win at the gun anyway. So with that, let's get to this week's report card. Whether you skim, read deliberately or pore over every syllable, we recommend holding your nose while doing so.
No matter what the reason - the line play, the more run heavy play calling, a few drops - Tom Brady wasn't very good on Sunday. He wound up throwing for over 300 yards but was still shaky. His yards per attempt (6.9) was average. His early interception was low and poorly angled. There were a handful of missed throws (the deep ball to Rob Gronkowski, a terrible miss on a screen pass to Ridley in the third quarter to name two). But what was most alarming about Brady's day was that he looked uncomfortable. He seemed unsure of where the Cards' pressure was coming from and at times, even seemed to sense it when it wasn't there (after the game, Arizona safety Kerry Rhodes said, "We made him look at other spots instead of his receivers."). He even got himself sacked on a play near the end of the first half on which he ducked away from an oncoming rusher who hadn't even reached him yet. Losing Hernandez three plays into the game didn't help anyone, least of all Brady, who saw the offense he's been running for over two years now change just like that. But neither he nor the coaches adjusted very well.
Running Backs: 3
Ridley flashed some of the same violent running he did in Week 1. At one point in the first half, his yards per attempt hovered around the 6.0 mark that he posted against the Titans. But in the second half, he was slowed down by both the Cardinals' very impressive defense and the play calling. The toss plays that worked so well in Tennessee weren't really there on Sunday, particularly when offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had him going right, or, away from the o-line's strength and into trouble. This was endemic on Sunday; it happened to Danny Woodhead too. So there were some forces complicit with Ridley's less than stellar showing; he only had six carries for 21 yards in the second half and none came in the fourth quarter. There's no need to worry about him going forward. Not every game can be like Week 1. As for Woodhead, his 30-yard TD that was called back aside, he really struggled. If Shane Vereen can ever get healthy enough to play, it might be time to see him take some of little Danny's snaps.
Wide Receivers: 3
It's true. Wes Welker didn't start, played fewer snaps on Sunday than Edelman (who put up a tidy five catch, 50 yard day) and if it weren't for Hernandez's injury, may very well have played even less. The scuttlebutt on why and what it means is running at full throttle among the members of the Pats' media but we're going to avoid the topic in this space as much as we can. Instead, let's focus on what Welker did do on the day he became the Patriots' all-time leading receiver, taking the title from newly indoctrinated Pats' Hall of Famer Troy Brown when he made his 558th catch for the team at the end of the second quarter on a deep out that went for 25 yards. Welker gave the team a spark and although he had his second terrible drop in as many weeks on a third quarter pass Brady may as well have handed to him, he proved that if given the playing time, he's still Wes Welker. As for the other top receiver, Brandon Lloyd, it's still a work in progress. Lloyd and Brady were not on the same page and there were times it felt like Brady was forcing Lloyd the ball. For the second straight week, he made a phenomenal grab, somehow coming up with a wide throw at the sideline and dragging his feel even though his body was nearly parallel to the turf. But he also dropped a pass that hit him right between the numbers in the second half while wide open, and at times, in catching some quick hitters and receiver screens, looked a little bit like he didn't want to get hit. Is Lloyd soft? Probably not. Does he need to pick it up? Yep.
Tight Ends: 2.5
With no Hernandez, it's Gronk and a guy who probably didn't expect to be playing 20 snaps in Michael Hoomanawanui. The Pats couldn't get Gronk going until late seemingly because Arizona played a majority of the game with a linebacker and at least two DBs in the middle of the field or the flat, where Gronk does most of his damage. It didn't help that he couldn't come up with a pretty well thrown deep ball from Brady in the end zone in the second quarter or the two-point conversion pass that clanged off his hands. And, needless to say, his holding penalty on the Woodhead TD run that should have been a game-winner, was a killer whether it was a bad call or not (the false start on the next play, which pushed Stephen Gostkowski's ill-fated field goal attempt back five more yards wasn't too helpful either). Gronk looked like Gronk in the fourth quarter once the Pats had opened up the offense and the Cardinals seemed to back off a step. He was tough to stay with when cris-crossing the middle of the field and his TD was a typical example of out muscling a defender to get separate enough to grab the ball. Gronk, who looked good blocking again, had an up-and-down afternoon. He's going to have to step up without Hernandez. As for Hoomanawanui, outside of one nice seal block on a Ridley run, let's all hope Daniel Fells gets better soon. Can't see that guy getting completely overpowered by a cornerback.
Offensive Line: 2
Can we all agree that there's a problem here? Headed into the season, the spot where the Patriots looked most vulnerable in the event of an injury (other than at QB) was the o-line. Matt Light is gone, Nate Solder is inexperienced and neither Logan Mankins nor Sebastian Vollmer are 100 percent. Oh almost forgot, Brian Waters is holding out. Anyway, if the Pats were to suffer an injury on the line, they would be significantly weakened. So what happens? Dan Connolly suffers an injury in Week 1. And even though he was dressed on Sunday, it was for emergency purposes. Enter Donald Thomas. Then duck. Sunday's right guard (which was, by the way, the position Waters played last year) was owned all day long by Arizona's Darnell Dockett. It didn't matter whether the Pats were running or throwing, they were in trouble on the right side with Thomas out there. The fact that Vollmer still isn't healthy enough to play an entire game meant that Marcus Cannon was out there next to Thomas a good deal too and we all know how shaky Cannon has looked. The bottom line is, Brady was looking for things that weren't there because he was expecting to get hit. Low percentage running plays were called on third downs because even the coaches had to feel like the protection wouldn't be there for Brady the way it needed to be. And Dante Scarnecchia may be a great line coach, but the Thomases and Cannons of the world aren't taking to his wisdom yet. What does this all mean (beside the fact that the team should do whatever it can to bring Waters back)? That when the Pats play a team with an aggressive, strong, quick defensive front like on Sunday and as they will in Baltimore, they're in for a tough time.
Defensive Line: 4.5
In the spirit of the Captain Obvious nature of the o-line analysis, it should be noted again that Chandler Jones is a monster. Not only was there a a second quarter stretch on which he blew up three straight plays thanks to his strength and athleticism (making a tackle while being held on one), but he forced a fumble and caused FOX commentator John Lynch to practically plead with the Cardinals' coaching staff to give Arizona's left tackle some help. It's only been two games but man does Jones look good. Elsewhere, it was great to see Kyle Love submit his second straight plus-game. He's been Wilfork-esque thus far. Big Vince himself tripped up Cardinals' QB Kevin Kolb which allowed Jones to force that fumble in the second quarter. And even though he suffered an ankle injury in the second half, he didn't miss much time and recovered the key fumble late in the fourth quarter that gave the Pats their chance to win. Rob Ninkovich looks slower and less active than he did last season but he still played four times as many snaps as Jermaine Cunningham and had a sack and another hit on Kolb. Even Ron Brace, who was in the middle of every short yardage, jumbo look, played and had an impact. This group, which held the Cardinals to just 68 yards on 26 attempts (17 of which came on a wildcat run by cornerback Patrick Peterson), looks tremendous.
Brandon Spikes. The run stuffer extraordinaire was all over the place. He forced the late fumble that should have given the Pats a win. He looked better than competent in coverage. He got to Kolb a couple of times as a pass rusher. He just looked like an all-around, every down backer and that's not something that we've seen from him all that much. He really came on in this regard near the end of last year so it was nice to see him playing like that again. Spikes did have a borderline roughing the passer penalty (declined thanks to another personal foul on the same play) but still, along with Jones, he was the Pats best player on defense. Jerod Mayo had a very typical Jerod Mayo game, the highlight of which was an absolutely crushing hit late in the third on Cards' receiver Early Doucet. Dont'a Hightower was more quiet than in Week 1 and overran a few running plays but still looks fast and freakishly quick and agile for someone his size.
Defensive Backs: 4
Nice day for the secondary. Devin McCourty was on Larry Fitzgerald duty all day and even though Steve Gregory was double teaming for most of the game, McCourty was the biggest reason why Fitzgerald caught just one pass for four yards. His coverage of Fitzgerald on an end zone fade in the third quarter was textbook. Let's hope this guy, capable of being an excellent corner, has his mojo back. Rookie Tavon Wilson, who seems to be playing somewhat of a safety/linebacker hybrid most of the time he's out there, made both a beautiful read and stop for a loss on an outside run and recovered that fumble forced by Jones in the second quarter. Kyle Arrington missed a couple of tackles and Gregory earned that hit out of bounds. And Patrick Chung could be and has been better. But none of those guys were that bad and all had their moments. When assessing this secondary, especially in light of the past couple of years, that's high praise.
Coaching/Special Teams/Intangibles: 1
No sugarcoating it, folks. The Pats were outcoached by a mile on Sunday. But first, the putrid special teams. A blocked punt. Another that should have been blocked. And a pooch from the Arizona 39 that went into the end zone then got five more yards added on due to a false start. That's a 14-yard net. That's as bad as it's ever been for our man Zoltan Mesko, who is much, much better than what he showed (34.4 yards per kick) against the Cardinals. And whither Stephen Gostkowski. He made four field goals, two from over 50 yards. He's made 27 straight in the fourth quarter. Yet he ganked the game winner from 42 yards just about as badly as Billy Cundiff missed for Baltimore in the AFC Championship game. Like Zoltan, Gostkowski is a very, very good kicker. The miss and the timing of it were absolutely brutal. But he's still a guy in which fans should still have a great deal of confidence.
It's not even worth getting into the Pats' return game (again, they don't care about it, so why should we?), so let's get to the coaching. There was a palpable sense of dread when Hernandez got hurt and it sure felt like the feeling trickled down to the sideline. The play calling was reactionary, there weren't a lot of adjustments made and it took two quarters too long to open things up. Now it's a given that when you lose your most flexible, versatile offensive player three plays into the game, it may be a bit of a shock. But the Pats looked just as mixed up, on their heels and a step slow for so long afterward, it calls into question whether they will be better prepared the next time any major in-game adjustments are required. There weren't any terrible individual decisions on Bill Belichick's part (although it would have been nice to see the Pats a little more aggressive in trying to get into field goal range after the late fumble). But it's been a long time since the offense has looked so incredibly conservative. Maybe the staff is convinced that it needs to be more balanced regardless of circumstance. Maybe Belichick and company are just as afraid Brady is going to get crushed behind this mess of an o-line as Brady seemed to be. Maybe, like players often do, the coaches just had a bad week. Whatever the reason, the coaching staff was just as complicit in this loss as anyone on either team. And that's something you don't see every day from the New England Patriots.