By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Before getting On To Miami™, let’s go back over the New England Patriots’ 26-10 loss to the Detroit Lions. A look at the All-22 tape can confirm some fears, reveal others, and serve to explain what went right & wrong in any given game.
Unfortunately, a hell of a lot more went wrong for the Patriots than right against the Lions. There’s plenty of football left and time to correct the issues they can correct. But other problems don’t seem so correctable right now. Here are some final thoughts and observations after getting one more look at one of the ugliest losses in the Brady-Belichick era…
— Pretty much anyone can exploit the edge against these linebackers. You almost didn’t need a second look at the film to realize that the Patriots relatively lack speed at the linebacker spot, especially side-to-side. For two straight games, the opponent has run a variety of plays meant to take advantage of the flat and beat the Patriots’ defenders around the edge. And they’ve had consistent success against the Pats’ linebacking corps.
This is an issue that may not be able to correct itself internally. Rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley covered better than the others – he was all over tight end Luke Wilson when he intercepted Matthew Stafford – but it’s probably too early to depend on him to do too much. It’s a tall order to expect Dont’a Hightower to gain a lot of burst as the season goes along, as he’s taking plenty of contact to begin with. He’s been hard to depend upon when having to chase running backs to the edge, like he did when Kerryon Johnson sped around him unimpeded for 14 yards.
Whenever the Patriots run into an opponent that can throw to the running backs and tight ends and exploit the short areas of the field, they’re going to have issues on defense. It’ll come down to how often they can stop teams in the red zone. But expect a lot of big catch-and-runs off short passes if the Patriots defense can’t play better – and faster – in a hurry.
— The Lions didn’t do anything too crazy in the trenches – they just manhandled the Patriots, on both sides of the ball. Defensive tackle was supposed to be a strength of the Patriots entering the season. Especially against the run, with Malcom Brown, Danny Shelton, and Lawrence Guy rotating in those situations. But the Patriots got roasted on the defensive interior against the Lions, who had their way for most of the night.
Brown got bottled up like you rarely see against the Lions offensive line, while Shelton often got pushed toward the pile. There were far too many openings like this for Johnson and the Lions’ running backs to burst through:
The silver lining is that, at these positions, the Patriots are better and more talented than they looked in Detroit. As long as they refocus and execute better, they should improve as the season goes along. Unlike linebacker, the offensive & defensive interiors are not talent problems.
— Sony Michel had more success when he had better blocking. It doesn’t help that Michel tended to bang his head against the wall when teammates didn’t execute their blocks. But there were also plenty of situations where Michel’s blockers let him down.
On one of the two key plays where Michel got stuffed for a loss on third-and-1, it looked like the Patriots could burn the Lions with zone blocking like the 49ers did. But Shaq Mason couldn’t keep former Patriot Ricky Jean Francois at bay, toppling to his knees and letting the defensive tackle through to make the stop. With better execution by Mason, Michel would’ve had a very nice opening to attack.
— The tight ends need to improve as much as anyone with their blocking. Gronkowski can be credited with two blown assignments, and Dwayne Allen had two himself. On one of them, Allen fell to his feet right in Michel’s path. Allen doesn’t catch passes, so he’s certainly going to need to block better in order to keep getting snaps.
But the tight ends’ blocking also showed the potential of the running game when they actually execute. Michel got perfect blocks by Gronkowski, Allen, and left tackle Trent Brown on a 12-yard gain in the third quarter.
You’d like to see Michel, a first-round pick, break more tackles and make more guys miss. But if the team in front of him can do their jobs, he’ll have more success moving forward.
— Third down has been a combination of three issues. One, the Patriots’ receivers couldn’t get open. A 10-yard “coverage sack” on Brady was a glaring example of arguably the offense’s biggest issue right now: this receiver group can’t get open against man coverage. Brady legitimately had nowhere to go with the football here:
Two, the play-calling by Josh McDaniels has been highly questionable. Not much else needs to be said about his decisions to put the ball in Michel’s hands on third-and-1 three times. Even on the one he converted for a first down, he basically fell forward into a pile of bodies. It’s far from ideal that McDaniels doesn’t have Julian Edelman at his disposal on third downs right now, and it should get better once No. 11 returns. But the plays that have been called so far haven’t been the best or most consistent, and it’s hurt the team on the field.
Three, the team execution has often had a weak link from play-to-play. Mason had the aforementioned non-block on the Michel stretch play. Dorsett couldn’t make the catch on either of his third-down targets. Even Brady was off, throwing behind Chris Hogan on the first possession of the game and throwing it high to Dorsett on the next. As far as everything needing to be better, it couldn’t be more literally true than on third down.
— The Patriots’ uncharacteristic mistakes could be chalked up to inexperience. Cordarrelle Patterson is far from mastering the Patriots’ playbook, and his history suggests that he’ll never come close. So it’s not shocking that he’d run the wrong route against a particular look, and Brady would heave a deep post when Patterson runs a 15-yard in-cut. It speaks to Patterson’s lack of dependability as a receiver, which left him getting ignored on a handful of plays where he actually got open.
As for the defense, they had the most stunning miscue of the night. You never see Bill Belichick’s Patriots put 12 men on the field. But looking back at the penalty from Sunday night, it’s easy to point the finger at rookie cornerback J.C. Jackson, who made his NFL debut against the Lions. He was the third cornerback when the Patriots already had two safeties in a 4-3 look, lining up almost like a safety in Cover-3. It’s hard to tell what Jackson was doing, which is why he was likely the most culpable on that penalty.
That’s the kind of mistake that can be corrected, but it starts with taking Belichick’s coaching in the first place. Losing that connection is no doubt one of the Patriots’ greatest fears. Playing better and smarter against the Dolphins would go a long way toward alleviating those fears.
Based on what went down in Detroit, there’s a lot that needs to be better and smarter.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.