There is an old saying in pro football: you are what your record says you are. Applying this to the New England Patriots, it appears obvious that they are not as good as they looked like earlier during the regular season. A 2-4 record after three straight losses is all the proof needed to come to that conclusion, and a manifestation of the team’s inconsistent play.
Sunday’s 33-6 blowout loss at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers was further proof of that. New England continued to struggle on offense before and after a change at quarterback, was unable to make the necessary stops on defense, and also failed to do any heavy lifting on special teams. It was a thorough domination and one that leads to a natural follow-up question possibly not asked since the early parts of the 2014 season.
Can the Patriots be fixed?
It is easy to look at the team and identify some fatal flaws. The offense has been unable to make any noteworthy plays recently, with the issues ranging from an inefficient passing game to ball security to the overall talent level of the unit. The defense has failed to consistently stop the run, meanwhile, rendering the game’s best secondary rather useless. But while all of that is certainly concerning, and was exploited by the 49ers, New England is not necessarily doomed just yet.
So, what can be done to get the team back on track, especially with a pivotal Week 8 matchup against the AFC East-leading Buffalo Bills on the horizon? The Patriots’ players had some concrete ideas when talking about rightening the ship after Sunday’s defeat.
“It starts with practice,” said center David Andrews. “We’ve got to practice better. I thought we had pretty good practice this week, but it wasn’t good enough. We’ve got to come in tomorrow and learn from that and start on the right foot and just continue to execute. You can talk about effort and all those things, but at the end of the day, this game is about execution. We’re just not doing that right now.”
Execution was, obviously, an issue on Sunday — and it is also something that another team captain mentioned during his own virtual postgame press conference.
“You can give all the effort you want in this league, we have to go execute,” said defensive back Devin McCourty. “Effort is there. There’s always going to be times when you feel that you could have did some more. But we have to execute. We can’t just come and try hard. Every team is going to come and play hard. We have to give effort, but we also have to execute. You know I can only speak from a defensive standpoint: we have to go do our job well. We can’t just be out there and look at each other and say, ‘At least we’re trying.’
“That’s just not good enough. This is a National Football League. That was a good San Francisco team that came in here, but we can’t just try. We have to go and play well.”
Playing well was not on the menu for the Patriots defense — or for the offense, for that matter — on Sunday. The unit did register a pair of interceptions, but eventually was unable to come up with enough big plays to throw San Francisco’s defense off of its rhythm and give the offense some short fields to work with and possibly build some momentum. A lack of takeaways was not the number one issue, though.
The 49ers simply were able to move the ball at will by attacking the obvious weak point of New England’s defense: its size.
After losing big-bodied linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins over the course of the offseason, the team had to reinvent itself and did so by further building around its elite secondary. While a pair of Day Two draft selections were also invested in the linebacker group, the Patriots started the season with Ja’Whaun Bentley as the top off-the-ball linebacker and with safety Adrian Phillips as the top option alongside him.
Bentley and Phillips had some good moments, and gave the defense some flexibility against the pass. However, the smaller off-the-ball defenders paired with some issues up front — Beau Allen still being on injured reserve, Adam Butler being limited in practice — created some issues against the run. Never was that more evident than against San Francisco, which was a bad matchup for New England’s undersized front and eventually shredded it for 197 yards and four touchdowns on 37 carries.
Being unable to stop the run and control the tempo of the game creates trouble across the board. As noted above, New England’s elite secondary is rendered comparatively useless when teams can just run on the defense without having to worry about challenging Stephon Gilmore and company through the air. Another problem is that it shortens the game and in turn puts more pressure on the Patriots offense to move the football through the air as opposed to its preferred method of driving down the field via the run.
The run-stopping issues cannot easily be solved — an Adrian Phillips growth spurt at age 28 seems rather unlikely — but there is some potential help on the horizon.
Beau Allen, for example, has returned to practice and if activated to the 53-man roster would give New England another big-bodied presence at defensive tackle to take some pressure off of Lawrence Guy, Byron Cowart and Adam Butler. Furthermore, linebacker Josh Uche also is eligible to come off injured reserve. Meanwhile, fellow rookie Anfernee Jennings has earned himself some increased playing time alongside Bentley.
Being able to properly defend the run won’t cure all of the Patriots’ maladies, but it certainly makes life easier for the team from an important perspective: playing complementary football, a key to Bill Belichick’s philosophy and game planning. This obviously also includes an offense that has failed to meet expectations during the last three games.
“It’s not just about one person doing something right or three people doing something right. When it comes to this game, all 11 guys have to be on the same page and they have to do their job to be able to execute at the highest level,” said backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who came onto the field in the fourth quarter on Sunday after starter Cam Newton was benched following his third interception.
“Right now we’re just falling short on that, but I do know that the locker room is extremely eager to get back to practice. I wish we could practice tonight, honestly, just to get back into the swing of things. That’s just really what it comes down to. All 11 guys being on the same page and doing your job. We preach that all the time of do your job, do your job. And I think the game of football you have to be able to do your job in order to execute plays.”
Just like their defense, the Patriots’ offense also failed to execute against San Francisco.
A conversation about this lack of execution naturally starts at the quarterback position. While the team’s skill position talent can be questioned — a top-three wide receiver group of Damiere Byrd, N’Keal Harry and Julian Edelman in combination with a tight end depth chart led by Ryan Izzo is likely not keeping defensive coordinators up at night — the most important spot on the offense was not up to par versus the 49ers, no matter if manned by Newton or Stidham.
Together, after all, the two passers combined to turn the football over four more times. The Patriots are therefore now up to 12 giveaways on the year, with 11 of them coming in the form of interceptions. For comparison, the team had 15 turnovers during the entire 2019 regular season, with quarterback Tom Brady responsible for eight picks. Taking care of the football appears to be the first and easiest step to return to more competitive levels of play with relatively little effort involved.
But to believe that the Patriots offense would suddenly start stringing together scoring drive after scoring drive if only it stopped turning the ball over would probably be naive. As always in football, it’s never that easy as wide receiver Jakobi Meyers acknowledged on Sunday.
“I couldn’t tell you what’s missing,” he said “I feel like our coaches will definitely have an answer for it tomorrow when we come in and I feel like if we all buy in — which I know we’ve got a bought-in team, so we’ll all be here tomorrow, ready to work, be professionals. I feel like this is a very professional team. Whatever it is that our coaches tell us we need to be better on, I feel like we’ll come in tomorrow and start a good week as far as getting better with that.”
What could the “that” in question be, though? Quarterback play, sure, with Newton, who will be back as the starting quarterback, per Bill Belichick, showing some below-average footwork, anticipation and pocket presence since his return after a positive Coronavirus test earlier this month. Creating separation as well, although there is more to that than just running away from defenders as Josh McDaniels said last week. Getting the offensive line back to full health, too, although Joe Thuney just suffered an ankle injury versus the 49ers.
At the end of the day, though, McDaniels and the coaching staff will be under most pressure. Sure, he cannot impact the execution mentioned by the team’s players, but he can still do his best to put them in a favorable position to be successful (not that he hasn’t been doing that but some self-scouting is always part of the evaluation).
Whether that includes more quick patterns to get the ball out of Cam Newton’s hands quickly, a bigger focus on running out of the i-formation, giving little-used players from Sunday’s game such as James White and Gunner Olszewski more chances, or bringing in outside reinforcements ahead of the trade deadline remains to be seen. Either way, McDaniels’ oft-quoted statement from last year — “Whatever style you want to be, it should reflect the talents of your team.” — rings true yet again.
Where do the Patriots’ offense talents lie, though?
The most obvious answer is the running game, and the elements tied to it. Just look at it from this perspective: no qualifying quarterback in football had a higher completion percentage on play-action passes than Cam Newton’s 80.4 heading into Sunday. Yes, the sample size may be small but that is one element to possibly build around behind a run-first approach that seems to suit the current personnel.
At the end of the day, however, it all goes back to complementary football. From the defense making stops in the running game, to the offense taking care of the football, to special teams playing sound coverage to win the field position battle, the Patriots need all three units to work in unison to get return to the win column after back-to-back-to-back defeats. While it will not be easy, they have shown that they can do that. In the meantime, an influx of talent on defense plus some soul-searching on offense can only help.
“You know you work so hard at this game, you give it everything you have in order for you to be successful as a team and certainly we are disappointed with the way things have gone thus far,” said special teams captain Matthew Slater on Sunday. “I think there is a lot of football out there for us and a lot of opportunities. The one thing we can’t do is feel sorry for ourselves because no one else is going to do that and if we do that then it is going to be a long season.
“I believe on the men in this team and believe we can find a way to righten this ship.”