By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — If one were so inclined, one could pick through a multitude of glaring issues that were evident for the Patriots. If challenged, one could even pick out what appeared to be the most significant problem facing the team right now.

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While exact conclusions may vary, it would be difficult to start anywhere other than the receiving corps. Because those camera angles from high above the quarterback’s head showed an unavoidable and uncomfortable reality.

Nobody could get open.

Take a look at this play, a first-and-10, with the Patriots trailing 13-0 late in the second quarter. Tom Brady lined up under center in an offset I-formation, faked an inside handoff to Sony Michel, then looked up the field to run through his progressions. It looked like this:

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The only receiving option out of frame there was Rob Gronkowski, who was covered up in the right flat as well.

Brady had plenty of protection, and he stood in the pocket for four full seconds. Despite all of that time, the best look Brady had was … this:

Out of options, Brady chucked the ball high over James Develin’s head while getting walloped by Christian Jones.

This was far from the only play of this nature on the night, as Brady was fairly well protected but too often had nowhere to go with the football.

On the play when Brady heaved a deep ball to the back judge and took an intentional grounding penalty, nobody was even close to being open. Two plays after that, on a third-and-8, the Lions rushed four. Brady dropped back, bought time, and had himself eight full seconds to throw a pass. He couldn’t do it. He took a sack. Gronkowski was double-covered. Nobody else had any separation. There was no play to be made.

Even the play that resulted in a touchdown pass to James White was a bit of a case of the quarterback making chicken salad out of chicken droppings:

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It started from the get-go, too. On the third play of the game, the Patriots came out in a shotgun formation with five wide on a third-and-4. Brady feasts in this scenario. He’s been killing teams in this situation, in that formation, for more than a decade. Detroit rushed four linemen; Brady had a clean pocket, and he stepped up to deliver a throw. This is the mess into which he threw:

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The difference on that play was that Brady missed an open Dorsett at the sticks …

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… but as it turned out, the third-down incompletion into traffic was a sign of things to come.

The end result of a number of these plays was Brady getting hit on plays where his line actually held up pretty well.

Tom Brady (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

Tom Brady (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

As all noted football experts would tell you, that’s not ideal when your quarterback is 41 years old. The bones get achy.

This is — in one man’s opinion — the most pressing issue facing the team. Does the Patriots’ defense look bad in certain areas? No doubt. But it’s hardly at 2009-in-New Orleans level. That is a troubling defense. This year’s defense has some holes but seems like one that can be salvaged by a Brady-led offense that can score 25-35 points every week.

Instead, the offense is moving backward, going from 27 points in the opener, to 20 points in Jacksonville, to 10 measly points in Detroit — against a Lions defense that was one of the NFL’s worst through two weeks. They looked vulnerable. Yet here’s how Brady compared to the previous two quarterbacks to face Detroit this season:

Tom Brady: 14-for-26 (53.8%), 133 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Sam Darnold: 16-for-21 (76.2%), 198 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT
Jimmy Garoppolo: 18-for-26 (69.2%), 206 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INT

Back in the infamous 2014 Kansas City game, when everyone sounded the panic alarm over Brady, the issue was very clearly on the offensive line. That ended up getting fixed; Brady threw 29 touchdowns and seven interceptions the rest of the way. The Patriots won the Super Bowl.

This year, the issue is clearly a lack of game-breaking talent. Sony Michel looks like he’s not up to speed. Chris Hogan hasn’t handled No. 1-type responsibilities well. Cordarrelle Patterson and Phillip Dorsett are slightly over their skis. Rex Burkhead keeps getting hurt. And Gronkowski keeps getting double-teamed.

The reintroduction of Julian Edelman should help some, but it won’t be a cure-all. Likewise, the Patriots may get lucky and end up getting contributions from Josh Gordon. At the very least, with Edelman getting up on short, quick routes and with Gordon burning deep, it should open up some space for Gronkowski on intermediate routes. Everyone else on the food chain will theoretically benefit, too.

But now sitting at 1-2 and with a visit from the 3-0 Dolphins on deck in a suddenly meaningful divisional meeting, Josh McDaniels and Brady will have to get to work — and quickly — if they want to at least tread water and get to .500. It’s going to require some creativity, because the current strategy is simply not working.

Let’s parachute into a few Leftover Thoughts from the Lions’ 26-10 win over the Patriots.

–Imagine what this team would have looked like if Bill Belichick had been able to execute his Rob Gronkowski trade with Detroit??? I mean. This offense is basically just Brady, Gronkowski and James White through three games. Remove the 6-foot-6, 268-pound behemoth tight end who draws double coverage on almost every play and is involved as a blocker, and I don’t know what you’re looking at. But it’d somehow be worse than what took the field on Sunday night.


–On the Lions’ first drive, Matt Patricia opted to kick a field goal on fourth-and-inches at the Patriots’ 21-yard line. Twitter roasted Patricia mercilessly. HASN’T THIS GUY EVER SEEN A PATRIOTS GAME???!!! YOU DON’T BEAT BRADY BY KICKING FIELD GOALS!!!! WHAT AN IDIOT!!!!

Being the sage old man that I am, I resisted. Instead, I noted this: “In the past, we’ve always said, ‘IF YOU WANT TO BEAT THE PATRIOTS, YOU GOTTA GO FOR IT.’ But are the Patriots still The Patriots™? Or are they more like every other team? We shall see.”

We saw. The Patriots looked ordinary all night long. Kick those field goals, everybody.

–Getting open was obviously one problem that we’ve covered, but how about just catching the football, people? 


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And those were on consecutive snaps.

Obviously the second one was a high throw from Brady. But if you spent the weekend watching hours upon hours of college and professional football, then you saw three dozen guys go up and make similar catches. Just ugly stuff.


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***It’s “Spygate,” only because “Preparationgate/Film Studygate/Even The Jets Knew The Lions’ Playsgate” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

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–As much as anything else, a trademark of a Belichick-coached Patriots team has always been a stout, gap-responsible defensive line. It’s just a prerequisite for any Belichick defense that takes the field. But that element was conspicuously absent on Sunday night. Some of the holes that Kerryon Johnson had to run through were borderline offensive.

Here was a much-too-easy 9-yard run in the first quarter:

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This was the next snap, which went for 12 yards after Johnson had a massive hole and then made Duron Harmon and Jonathan Jones miss on their arm tackles:

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Look at this:

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And this:

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Just too easy. The Patriots’ D-line got dominated, and it’ll be a long day watching film for that group.

–Meanwhile, here’s what Sony Michel has to work with on a third-and-1:

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Not what you’re looking for. Shaq Mason got absolutely bulldozed by Ricky Jean Francois on that one, and the play was doomed from the jump.

–The Patriots’ defense also made the night pretty easy for Matthew Stafford:

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Rewatching some of Stafford’s throws, they’re so simple. Receiver runs a route. Receiver is open. Receiver catches pass. Drive continues.

If the quarterback buys extra time, receiver breaks off his route and finds a void. Makes a catch. Drive continues.

It’s bizarre to see the Patriots make that look like a foreign concept.

–You also have to be concerned about Dont’a Hightower. In Week 1, he looked … odd while chasing Deshaun Watson.

Dont’a Hightower chases Deshaun Watson in Week 1. (GIF from

In Week 2, he looked injured while trying to change direction from backard to forward. And in this game, he looked slow while losing a race with Johnson to the edge. The result was a 14-yard run.

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If the 21-year-old running back with the fresh legs is faster than your 28-year-old linebacker who’s carrying 40 extra pounds of muscle, you can live with it. But for Hightower to not even lay a finger on Johnson? That’s concerning.

–OK, so the veteran linebacker can’t keep up with the rookie running back. Can the rookie linebacker win a 1-on-1 matchup in the open field against the rookie running back? Well …

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I suppose that is a little better?

–Do you remember all the way back in August, when everybody went bananas over this new rule against helmet-to-helmet contact? Yeah? It was wild. Then the NFL went ahead and basically deleted that rule from existence, sort of like some smart people predicted. Yes? OK. Well. If I may, there was one play on Sunday night that absolutely should have brought about a flag for helmet-to-helmet contact, because it was a play where over-the-top violence is commonplace and completely unnecessary.

Sony Michel was held up. His forward momentum had been stopped completely. He wasn’t even churning his legs at all. After a 12-yard gain, the play was done.

Yet because he was still on his two feet, Michel was considered fair game, like a piece of raw meat thrown to the wolves. Linebacker Eli Harold jumped on the opportunity, and promptly went into human torpedo mode on the completely defenseless running back:

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This is a play that football doesn’t need. It’s been a part of the game forever, and defensive players love to take advantage of the opportunity to inflict severe pain on ball carriers. GOTTA SEND A MESSAGE, and all of that. But legislating this play out of the game doesn’t hurt the sport in any way whatsoever. No fans will be boycotting the sport because senseless head shots like this become banned.

Meanwhile, Clay Matthews is getting flagged for having bad breath near a quarterback.

The NFL has no idea what it’s doing. And even amid the “push for player safety,” running backs continue to be considered second-class citizens.

–All people who shouted or complained about the intentional grounding penalty on Brady were telling on themselves for not watching Jets-Browns this past Thursday night. What losers! Anyway. I saw some complaints that it took a long time for the flag to come out of Clete Blakeman’s hand. That’s true, but part of the rule on grounding is that the referee must confer with the official closest to the pass to check if there were any eligible receivers in the area. The ref, standing far behind the line of scrimmage, can’t see down the field where the back judge stands. Especially when Brady chucks a pass to Timbuktu.

It happened in the Super Bowl. It happened Thursday night. And it happened Sunday night. When it happens again, please don’t say, “I’ve never seen that before so it must be a lousy call!”

–If you wanted to get really negative — and I mean REALLY negative — then you have the opportunity to do so. This is totally up to you, now, but if you want to play the transitive property game, then you could note that …

The Jets beat the Lions by 31 points. The Lions beat the Patriots by 16 points. Ergo the Jets are obviously 46 points better than the Patriots right now in a head-to-head meeting.

Also the Jaguars beat the Patriots 31-20. The Jaguars then lost 9-6 to the Titans. The Patriots would therefore score just four points if they were to play the Titans today.

I kid, of course. The Jets lost to the Browns — the Cleveland Browns!!!!! — this week. The transitive property doesn’t work.

But the Patriots are in a rough spot. There’s quite a bit of work to be done. As Belichick said after the loss: “There’s no shortcut. There’s no easy way. Just have to do a better job.”

Most people who have observed this team for some time know that it would be unwise now to make grand prognostications related to the ultimate fate of the 2018 Patriots. It’s too early, and the track record of Brady and Belichick requires you to provide more leeway than you would give to any other team in any other situation. Until the Patriots actually fail, you should never believe they will fail.

But in the short term, the Patriots have quite a bit of work to do this week if they want to avoid falling three games back of the Miami Dolphins through four weeks of the season. Even for those of us who expected the start of this season to be a bit unpredictable, nobody in the world (outside of Adam Gase’s immediate family … maybe) planned on ever hearing or seeing that sentence.

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You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.