I didn’t realize that Rob Ninkovich’s beard was the only thing that prevented opposing teams from scoring points.
The New England Patriots dropped to 2-2 on the season after a last-second field goal ended their comeback and the Carolina Panthers walked away with a 33-30 victory. The Patriots are now the 8th team in NFL history to both score and allow 30 points per game over the first four games of the season, and are one of four teams to both score and allow 32 points per game over that span.
For as good as the Patriots’ 2nd ranked offense has been this year, the defense has been just as bad, if not worse.
The defense ranks 32nd in yards allowed per game with 456.8 YPG; the Patriots offense ranks 1st in the league with 423.8 YPG. In other words, the Patriots defense is making opposing teams look better than the #1 ranking offense.
You can go across all the rankings. 32nd in yards allowed per play. 31st in rushing yards allowed per play (Jaguars are 32nd). 32nd in passing yards allowed per play. 28th in sack rate. 30th in first downs allowed per game. 27th in red zone defense 30th in goal-to-go rate. 23rd on third down. 31st in points allowed per game (Colts are 32nd).
I didn’t realize that Vincent Valentine was the secret to Alan Branch’s success.
Without question this is the worst defense in the league.
Chiefs QB Alex Smith, Saints QB Drew Brees, Texans QB Deshaun Watson, and Panthers QB Cam Newton have combined to start 14 games this year. They have thrown from 300 or more yards in four combined games. All four of those games came against the Patriots defense.
And I think the biggest problem with the New England defense is the secondary.
I didn’t realize that Logan Ryan was the only reason the secondary could defend the pass over the past two years.
For much of the game against the Panthers, I thought the Patriots defensive front did a good job. Jonathan Stewart broke out for two strong runs in the second half and Cam Newton escaped twice on third down. For much of the day the Patriots were able to stop the run and pressure or hit Newton- only for the secondary to let them down.
Two hands to the facemask penalties against Stephon Gilmore erased third down stops by the defense, including a sack by Deatrich Wise. A miscommunication between Gilmore and Devin McCourty led to Fozzy Whittaker’s 29-yard touchdown. A pair of miscommunications by Gilmore and Eric Rowe allowed a 43-yard gain on third-and-9 and a touchdown to Devin Funchess on the same drive right before the half. Another miscommunication between Malcolm Butler and Patrick Chung led to a 39-yard gain by Kelvin Benjamin on third-and-4 to open up the fourth quarter.
“Basically, everybody’s not on the same page,” Butler said after the game.
“We got to get better on communication,” Gilmore echoed. “I got to get better on communication. I got to get better on communication right now.”
“[Communication is] obviously something we need to work a little harder at,” defensive captain Duron Harmon added. “Obviously what we’re doing is not good enough, so we need to go take a look in the mirror tonight and just look and realize. Are we doing enough to win? Are we doing enough to be good on defense? Are we doing enough to be a sound football team? Today we weren’t, especially on defense.”
“It’s bad,” fellow captain Devin McCourty said about the communication. “We’re letting our team down and not playing good football.”
“Obviously they had a little bit if trouble with that bunch formation that we have,” Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said after the game.
Opposing teams have realized that the Patriots communication in the secondary is currently atrocious. It’s why teams are starting to use three-receiver bunch formations more, challenging the New England secondary to either be on the same page or allow a huge gain. It’s been working- watch for it on third downs now- and teams will continue to call these plays until the Patriots show an ability to stop it.
I didn’t realize that Tom Brady turning 40 would make the defense age and start to decline.
Now the rest of the defense wasn’t perfect- opposing teams are going to motion tight ends across the formation on rushing plays to draw Elandon Roberts out of the middle gap from now until forever, so long as he keeps being overaggressive and taking the bait- but I actually think the defensive front will be fine.
Flowers is a rising star on the edge, while Deatrich Wise continues to deserve more opportunities. The talent is there on the middle. Malcom Brown is always consistently good against the run, while Lawrence Guy is a solid contributor. If Alan Branch can just figure out his current problem and get more playing time, then the defensive line will be fine.
I like the linebacker combination of Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy and believe that Van Noy has been the defense’s second-most consistent player (Flowers being the best) since he signed his contract extension. They offer the defense flexibility and both can move forward and backward with relative ease. Hopefully Hightower can continue to eat away at some of Roberts’ snaps against the run.
The pressure on the quarterback is there when the Patriots want to create it, with Wise and Flowers providing quarterback hits when asked. The problems defending the pass have nothing to do with the quarterback avoiding pressure or not being pressured or getting rid of the ball quickly. The communication problems that happen at the line of scrimmage before the snap ultimately doom the defense before the ball is even snapped.
Gilmore seems to be at the heart of a lot of these miscommunications and hopefully he’ll improve with time. When the assignment is simple man coverage, Gilmore has been the best coverage player on the Patriots, but when he’s forced to make an adjustment, he always appears to float in no-man’s land, with his intended receiver wide open.
Eric Rowe wasn’t any better, either, so maybe Jonathan Jones will see an expanded role. Whatever the solution, until this secondary takes a step forward, this defense is going to continue to get picked apart and rank at the bottom of the league.