By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Playoff football games have a way of summing your season up, especially if you come out on the losing end. That’s most certainly the case with a Patriots offense that never truly found a groove in 2019.
There will be plenty of thoughts about the Patriots defense and allowing Derrick Henry to bulldoze them for 182 yards and a touchdown in a 20-13 Wild Card loss to the Titans on Saturday. But in reality, Henry should have been an afterthought. If the Patriots offense did their job, Henry’s performance wouldn’t have been enough. Instead, the offense summed up a harrowing 2019 season with a mostly punchless performance.
The same mistakes peppered throughout the campaign popped up at the worst possible time.
Subpar blocking up front. Drops. Penalties. Back-breaking turnovers. Wonky play-calling. You really can’t pin their offensive troubles on one particular thing, which points to an overall dysfunction.
But the issues that really cost the Patriots in this one came in a goal line series late in the first half. Given first-and-goal at the 1, the Patriots decided to go heavy with 23 personnel on first down, including tackle Marshall Newhouse as an extra blocking tight end and linebacker Elandon Roberts checking in at fullback. First down they had no chance as they left linebacker Rashaan Evans unaccounted for and he tackled Sony Michel for a one-yard loss.
On second down they went with three receivers in 11 personnel – but called a run. A late shift by the Titans defensive line gave DaQuan Jones the space he needed to shoot his gap and wrap up Rex Burkhead just short of the end zone. Third down they went back to 23 personnel and again left Evans unblocked, as he burst through and easily brought Michel down for another loss of yardage. They even burned two timeouts in the process.
“Yeah, we were just trying to get to our best play and I just give them credit,” said Tom Brady. “It was good job of executing by them on defense. Yeah, I wish we could have scored there, but they made the plays when they needed to.”
Third down. Red zone. Goal line. Blocking. Run game. Play-calling. The struggles had popped up all season, and it all came to a head on that series. The Patriots had to settle for a field goal to go up 13-7, the Titans answered by punching it in from the goal line with Henry, and that was the difference in the game.
“We just didn’t make enough plays,” said head coach Bill Belichick. “We had some opportunities and just weren’t able to score enough points. Thirteen wasn’t enough.”
Oh yeah, the coaching. First half with the Patriots driving and appearing to move the ball at will, especially on the ground, Josh McDaniels picked a very strange time to bust out a surprise handoff to linebacker Elandon Roberts on third-and-1. The play was not even close to gaining a yard. McDaniels showed his same familiar qualities in 2019. He knows how to design an offense and game-plan and attack defenses in a variety of ways, but he tends to overthink his situational play-calling at times. Like all of them, that issue cropped back up at the worst time.
In the second half, it only got worse. Excluding the final play of the game, the Patriots’ offensive possessions in the last two quarters went: punt, punt, punt, punt, pick-six. After gaining 222 yards in the first half, they netted only 85 in the second.
The Titans mainly tightened up their coverage. Brady mostly had time to throw, but not much space. His best pass of the night was a 20-yard catch by Julian Edelman where he had to thread the ball between two defenders. The Patriots also hurt themselves with penalties, most notably an ineligible upfield receiver flag on right guard Shaq Mason that negated what would have been a massive 38-yard catch by tight end Ben Watson.
Questions surrounded the Patriots’ wide receiver corps throughout the season. They suffered through injuries and roster turnover and a lack of separation or sure hands. And despite hope that they would have just enough to eventually figure it out, they face-planted. On Saturday, Pats receivers combined for seven catches on 21 targets for 68 yards. Not even in the same universe of being good enough.
And if one play could have summed up the season, it was Edelman’s drop on second-and-4 that should have been an easy wide-open catch. On a gotta-have-it drive. The time where Edelman is usually money in the bank.
The Patriots’ Week 16 win over the Bills showed that they still believe they can play at a high level as a unit. But the execution wasn’t always there. In the final two games of the season, both disappointing losses to underdog opponents, the execution evaporated. Pretty much everything did, except the confidence that they’d get it together. Except they never did.
“You always got to be confident. You got to be confident,” said wide receiver Phillip Dorsett. “We’ve been through so much in my three years here. Tom [Brady] has seen it all and this offense has seen it all. We stayed confident, but we didn’t get it done.”
If the Patriots executed better at the goal line on Saturday, Belichick’s defensive gameplan could have been viewed as another check mark for the Hoodie. Henry ran wild in the first half, but a lot of it came against zone defenses with two deep safeties designed to take away big plays in the passing game with Ryan Tannehill. That part worked.
But it’s not like they didn’t want to stop the run. The guys up front had to slow down Henry with less help than usual and more space for Henry to work with, and they couldn’t hold up their end of the bargain. The Patriots basically lost to a running back singlehandedly because they couldn’t get any single skill player of their own to come up with enough plays.
Henry’s numbers would have been all for naught if Tannehill’s interception and fumbled snap in the second half came with the Patriots clinging to a 17-14 lead instead of a 14-13 deficit. At the end of the day, 14 points allowed by the defense in a playoff game isn’t a bad night.
The defense perhaps wasn’t nearly as dominant as it looked while ripping off an 8-0 start where defensive touchdowns became a weekly occurrence. But the 2019 Patriots should and will be viewed as a team that didn’t reach their end goal because of the offense. Too many things went wrong both on and off the field. Too many players didn’t execute. The team couldn’t quite overcome injuries at some key spots. And it all came to a head against the Titans.
We’re now left wondering what the future holds for Brady, who said he considers retirement “unlikely.” Regardless of who’s under center in 2020, the future has to brighten for the offense if the Patriots want to get back to the Super Bowl.
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.