Brutal. That’s the only word that comes to mind. Like last week, the final scoreboard does not accurately reflect the one-sided nature of the game. The New England Patriots were dominated offensively and defensively by the Detroit Lions. But this time is different. Patriots did not lose to a star studded Jacksonville team. They only scored one touchdown against a team that was absolutely torched by two of the worst teams in the NFL last year the previous weeks..
It’s three games into the season. The Kansas City Chiefs were 0-5 with Alex Smith and managed to make the Divisional Round. I have faith in Brady and Bill. Let’s not hand out division champion hats to the Miami Dolphins just yet.
Still, the first few weeks have revealed some disturbing trends.
Tying the Noose
Here is a list of all the concerns the Patriots had entering the off season.
- We needed a second good outside corner.
- We needed an edge defender who could reliably set the edge.
- We needed a reliable pass rusher opposite Trey Flowers.
- We needed a stud pass rusher.
- We needed a coverage linebacker.
- We needed a linebacker with side line to side line speed.
- We needed a defensive tackle that could rush the passer.
- We needed a defensive tackle who could reliably defeat the run.
- We needed a backup strong safety.
- We needed a good slot defender.
- We needed a receiver who could reliably beat man coverage.
- We needed a receiver who could reliably stretch the field.
- We needed a left tackle.
- We needed dynamic running back.
Here is a list of what the team needs three weeks into the season.
- We need a good second outside corner.
- We need an edge defender who could reliably the set the edge against the run.
- We need a reliable pass rusher opposite Trey Flowers.
- We need a stud pass rusher period.
- We need a coverage linebacker.
- We need a linebacker with side line to side line speed.
- We need a defensive tackle that could rush the passer.
- We need a defensive tackle who could reliably defeat the run.
- We need a backup strong safety.
- We need a receiver who could reliably beat man coverage.
- We need a receiver who could reliably stretch the field.
- We need dynamic running back.
Trent Brown has been a fine replacement for Solder and Jonathan Jones has been good in the slot. No other hole on this roster has been fixed. I don’t know how to lay this out more plainly than that. You can ascribe whatever causality you prefer. The coaches scheme sucks. Bill sucks as a general manager. Injuries have plagued this team. The guys just aren’t executing. I don’t care. The result is that this team appears to have nearly all of the gaping holes it had at the end of last year. That’s bad.
The Eagles, Lions, and Jaguars have combined to demonstrate that there is a consistent strategy for dominating the Patriots offensively and defensively. It’s a strategy that can be replicated with varying levels of talent. This strategy is built around clear flaws on the Patriots roster. These are flaws that existed last year and have now persisted into year two.
Where to Direct the Mob
I think all of the potential casualties have merit.
A lot of us tend to give Belichick a pass because our success keeps us from drafting the higher level talent. I buy into this argument. The draft is a crapshoot. Expecting the team to consistently draft incredible talent when you are picking that low is erroneous. This year was different though. This year the Patriots had the draft capital equivalent of a team picking in the top ten. Yet despite all that capital the Patriots have seen their most positive production coming from a 5th round linebacker. That’s a problem.
I tend to think that the majority of the play calling yesterday was the result of poor personnel but it was hardly the only issue. Shaq Mason entered this game with two seasons of production as one of the top five run blocking guards in the NFL. He was blown up by Rickey Jean Francois. Rickey Freaking Francois. Was it a personnel mistake by Bill signing him to a contract extension or did Mason just have a bad game? I’d err on the side of Mason just having a bad game.
Injuries have been a real concern. Britt and Mathews were both receivers the Patriots were high on in the offseason and both were lost to injuries. Burkhead cannot stay healthy. Hollister cannot stay healthy. Hill went down with a season ending injury. The top pick of last years draft and all three of this years top picks have struggled with significant injuries.
Direct the torches as you please, either direction could be accurate. I tend to ascribe the lion’s share of the blame to roster management but they are all interconnected. I’m not sure to what degree the roster management deserves the blame but since I do think it presents the largest issue, I want to analyze it today.
The Defensive Front 7
“You had one job. One job. And you couldn’t even do it.” That was the thought that kept running through my head while watching the front seven get their butts kicked by Detroit’s rushing attack. But let’s put the rushing defense analysis to the side for the moment and focus on what really matters.
This front seven gives the appearance of a unit that is fundamentally flawed. Through three games they have proven incapable of covering tight ends, receiving backs, speed toward the outside, and of rushing the passer. These are the staples of modern NFL offenses. We should know. We were the franchise that helped pioneer many of these staples. The Patriots won two Super Bowls within three years on the backs of talented receiving backs. Did they think the rest of the league didn’t notice? That’s an asinine comment but it speaks to the bewilderment I feel of observing a team being absolutely schlonged by receiving backs week in and week out as if they had never encountered this offensive strategy before.
The NFL is geared toward the offense. This trend is only accelerating. Even star studded teams like Jacksonville can get beaten bloody. But on a week to week basis the Jaguars front seven is going to dramatically outperform the Patriots because they possess the capacity to stop what good offenses want to do. Until this front seven demonstrates any capacity to stop what modern NFL offenses are based upon, than I am going to remain bearish about their chances.
What’s especially offensive to me is the rushing defense. The Patriots became the first team in five years to allow the Detroit Lions a one hundred yard rusher. In a vacuum that stat is not as embarrassing as it looks. The Lions spent a third, a second, and a first round pick on improving the running game this year. They wanted to run the ball better this year and unless Kerryon Johnson turned into a complete bust, they were going to get a one hundred yard game out of him eventually.
It was like being the first team to lose the Browns this year (aka the Jets). You did not want to be that team but it was obvious from the amount of talent they had amassed that it was going to happen eventually. But we’re not looking at this in a vacuum. We’re looking at this from a general management perspective. The only possible justification for the Patriots creating a front seven that is so unathletic, such a liability in coverage, and so weak at rushing the passer is that at least you get a dominant run defense out of it. And the Patriots rushing defense has been destroyed three out of the last four games.
Look, I get the logic. As I explained in my article last week getting good pass rushers outside of the first round is a really difficult. The only thing more expensive than paying a quarterback is paying for a good pass rusher. It’s very similar to the type of defense the Ravens have hosted over the last few years. A team that struggles rushing the passer, but is dominant against the run, and features a good secondary. That strategy is a recipe for mediocrity when Joe “I’M ELITE!” Flacco is throwing the ball. But it was a recipe for championship success with the GOAT. Building a good secondary and dominant run defense is a lot more feasible on paper building a dominant passing defense like the Jaguars It worked in 2016 right?
Sure, but it’s not working in 2018. In addition to all its other flaws the Patriots still cannot stop the run. Why is that? The five additions to the Patriots front seven were drafting Bentley, the debut of Rivers, the return of Hightower, trading for Shelton and signing Claiborne. To be honest that seemed like a good haul on paper, at least when it came to the run game. But what has the reality been? Bentley looks like a nice steal in the 5th. Rivers has been a healthy scratch twice and a non factor once. Hightower has been bad. Claiborne has been bad. Shelton has been bad. GM Bill is batting one for five currently. Three games in and outside of a roll the dice in the 5th round every front seven decision Bill Belichick made looks bad.
So is the problem a lack of execution or talent? The answer is both. Shelton can play better against the run. Clayborn will have better games setting the edge and rushing the passer. Based on the fact that he is coming back from injury and has played much better in the past you have to believe Hightower will improve as the year goes on. Rivers is essentially a rookie coming off a season ending injury. It was probably too optimistic to expect anything of him so early. He will improve
But even in a best case scenario this is still a front seven that suffers from a lot of the critical flaws. There is no speed, no athleticism, no coverage linebacker or talented pass rusher. Shutting down the run would have a positive ripple effect throughout the defense. Getting Trey Flowers back will help. But neither factor seems powerful enough to outweigh these fundamental issues.
You never want to feel that a season’s success hinges on a alcoholic drug addict and a 32-year old coming back from a season-ending injury and a performance enhancing drug bust. But that is exactly what the case may be.
I wrote in depth that running an offense through Hogan, Dorsett and Patterson was unwise on paper. If I nail that prediction with with scraps of data it’s bizarre that the Patriots were not able to come to the same conclusion. You want to know why the Patriots are rushing Burkhead and Michel back from injuries? Why Josh McDaniels kept ordering Tom to hand the ball off, seemingly with a prayer, to Sony Michel? Because this wide receiver core is bad. It’s a collection of WR3-WR5’s masquerading as a real receiver core. I saw at least three separate times when the offensive line gave Brady all the time in the world to throw and we got absolutely nothing out of it because the receivers were completely blanketed.
The Lions do not have a great secondary. The Patriots receiving core is just that bad. I’m not saying don’t trade Cooks. I’m saying draft Calvin Ridley. You’re damn right the Patriots should be held to a higher standard than some sports writers on the internet. They are paid professional with access to mountains of more information than anyone else. After a pedestrian two games the young receiver just broke free for 3 TD’s and 146 yards. When is the last time a receiver not named Gronk put up those kinds of numbers for New England?
I don’t think Brady is completely blameless either. It honestly looked like he gave up in this game. That interception to Dorsett was terrible. Throwing to Dorsett when he was double covered and one of those guys was Slay? That screams “F*ck it”. I also don’t like how little involvement James White had. I don’t like how they had Dorsett going back to the go routes that failed him most of his career.
This game’s passing attack failure is not exclusively on the wide receivers. But it mostly is. Gronk was essentially double covered every play and none of these guys could do squat. This is why I strongly cautioned putting the breaks on Dorsett after week one. Yes, he was the wide receiver I had the most hope for but the dude beat up on Johnathan Joseph. He was going to need to do a lot more than that before he was anointed anything meaningful. So far he hasn’t proven it.
A drug addict and a 32-year old receiver with a drug bust and ACL tear. That’s what we are pinning our hopes on this year. If they pan out the Patriots will catapult to the top of the offensive rankings. There are only a handful of teams equipped to be competitive against two all pro receivers and a superior slot player. If neither player pans out? Man…
Hurry Up and Wait
The people calling Sony Michel a bust need to relax. The run blocking yesterday was a mess. Michel missed all of camp and preseason and is coming off a knee surgery. He still managed to will his way to 3.6 yards a carry which, while pedestrian, is impressive in the given context. I think he will be a very serviceable runner at absolute minimum.
Here is my big problem. He can’t catch balls. Back when I wrote about my four prong test for running backs I specifically cited my concern with Sony catching the ball. It was never something he did much of in college and it was essential to him being worth a first round pick. So far he has failed to past that test. From what has been leaked to us through the press it seems clear the Patriots intended for Michel to be a major part of the passing attack. He would be James White 2.0 if you will. A menace in space and a significantly better runner. He is the better runner but if they thought he would be anywhere near as deadly catching the ball they have to be sorely disappointed.
The run blocking will improve, his health will improve, and his rushing production will improve as a result. Sony has already proven he can excel in pass protection. Now he needs to show he can be threat as a receiver. If he can’t, you can feel free to scream bust until your lungs give out.
Gilmore is overpaid but he’s not the problem. Harmon messed up but he’s not the problem. The fact that we are paying twelve million for an only decent safety is a problem. The fact that we have no back up strong safety is a problem. The fact that we have no reliable second cornerback is a problem. The fact that the front seven sucks is the real problem. The secondary is overpaid, not great, but it’s not the reason we are going to sink this season. It is what it is.
Don’t Hang Yourself Yet
The Patriots look bad because they have been bad. But we’ve been here before. The Saints were 0-3 last year before winning the division and getting one Minnesota Miracle away from the NFC Championship. If we win next week’s game against Miami we will be 2-2, right where we were before we made the Super Bowl last year. I will admit this year has a bit of a different feel to it. This time last year Tom Brady had the offense humming and the only real concern was whether Bill could get the defense in a good enough place to let Brady carry the team
This time both sides of the ball have looked pedestrian. We had an offseason filled with uncharacteristic amounts of drama. And maybe this is how the dynasty dies out. With a whimper and not a bang. But I learned a long time ago that betting against the Patriots rarely works out. We are on to Miami.