On Sunday, the New England Patriots had to leave the field as losers for the third time this season following a 34-10 blowout loss against the Tennessee Titans. For the team, the defeat followed a familiar script not just because the contest — like the first two losses this season — was played on the road: the Patriots made some of the same errors that plagued them as they were beaten in weeks two and three.
Step 1: Start slowly
After their week three loss against the Detroit Lions, we dubbed the Patriots the “anti-Kansas City Chiefs” because as opposed to their AFC rivals they had stumbled out of the gates: one week after falling behind 14-0 and later 21-3 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, New England was down 13-0 in the second quarter against the Lions. The following weeks, the team was able to get into a rhythm more quickly, though — until yesterday that is.
Versus the Titans, the Patriots again had a bad start: the team gave up a 58-yard kickoff return that allowed the home team to take a quick lead. While New England answered with a field goal, it still found itself down 17-3 by the time the first quarter came to an end. “When you play from behind all day, it’s not very ideal,” quarterback Tom Brady said immediately after yesterday’s game. For the Patriots this is more than “not very ideal”: it is a recipe for disaster.
Step 2: Lose the field position battle
One reason closely tied to yesterday’s slow start is the field position battle: Tennessee started three of its six first half drives on New England’s side of the field: the first began at the 40, the third at the 49, and the sixth at the 37. The results of those drives: touchdown, field goal, touchdown. The Patriots, meanwhile, started all of their six series in quarters one and two between their own 30 and their own 9.
The battle was tilted in the home team’s favor all day long: while New England’s average drive started at the team’s 24-yard line, the Titans had to go 10 fewer yards on average by setting up show at the 34. This 10-yard difference may not seem like a lot, but it puts the entire team in bad situations as it is simply not well equipped to handle them considering its inconsistency on defense and, at times, streakiness on offense.
Through weeks one to three, New England ranked just 19th with a starting point at the 27.2-yard line, and a mere 26th on defense with the 31.0-yard line the average starting position for the opponent. The team has since improved a bit in both areas — which played a big role in it winning six straight games — before yesterday’s blowout loss. This is something the Patriots coaching staff again needs to work on.
Step 3: Struggle on third down
The Patriots are inconsistent when it comes to third downs on both sides of the football: the offense is ranked middle-of-the-pack no matter the distance it has to cover, while the defense is one of the NFL’s worst in stopping opponents on third-and-mediums and third-and-shorts. On the year, the two sides are ranked 14th (39.7%) and 26th (43.1%) when it comes to conversions on third down.
Yesterday was no exception: while New England kept its own drives alive on just 3 of 15 third down attempts, the defense allowed the Titans to convert 5 of 12 tries. This is something the Patriots also struggled with in weeks two and three when the Lions and Jaguars gave up a combined 6 of 21 attempts (28.6%) while finding success on 17 of 28 (60.7%)
New England’s issues against the Titans went beyond those three steps: be it bad pass protection, decision making by quarterback Tom Brady, or simply defenders not winning their one-on-one battles. However, in the end it all contributed to the three grand themes that made life hard for the Patriots in weeks two and three and did it again yesterday.
The good news is that the team has done all those things well the last few weeks: the Patriots have started quickly, they have won the field position (and turnover) battle, and they have improved on third down. As we have mentioned yesterday, the key once again is consistency.