By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It may seem odd to point a finger of admonishment at the Patriots’ defense, after a game in which the offense spent most of the day spinning its tires, failing to properly compete, and turning over the football. Odd, indeed.
Yet with the Patriots now 0-2 at home to start the year (for the first time in 21 years), you can’t help but notice a parallel in both of those losses.
The Miami loss is remembered for the Damien Harris fumble; rightfully so. Turning the ball over that close to the goal line, when the go-ahead field goal has already been secured and the go-ahead touchdown is within reach is unacceptable. Obviously.
But as you may recall, 3:31 remained in that game. The Dolphins were deep in their own territory. Had the Patriots’ defense been able to quickly force a punt, then they would’ve gotten the ball back close to midfield with time left to drive for that game-winning field goal. Instead, they allowed 26 yards on five plays, with Miami picking up two first downs, the second of which allowed them to kneel out the rest of the clock and secure a one-point victory.
And on Sunday against the Saints, while the pick-six and the near-pick-six stand out as the critical moments in the loss, the fact is that the defense once again had a chance to make a play to save the game. And once again, the defense didn’t make the play.
This was a huge moment, as Jameis Winston’s offense faced a third-and-7 at their own 28-yard line with 8:31 left to play in the game. The Saints were holding an eight-point lead, and the Patriots had finally built some momentum after Mac Jones’ touchdown pass to Kendrick Bourne. On a day when the home crowd had little reason to cheer, the place finally came alive for that third down play, sensing the moment. The noise was so loud that the Saints’ sideline had to call timeout at the line to allow the offense to get together. Winston looked utterly perplexed when the whistle blew for the timeout, indicating he may be ripe to unleash one of his patented interceptions.
Perhaps some pressure on the quarterback would result in a game-losing mistake by Winston. But instead, with the crowd roaring, the Patriots really only rushed three, with Chase Winovich chipping the tight end off the line before initiating his pass rush. Matt Judon couldn’t get around the backup left tackle, Christian Barmore met a wall of white jerseys, and Kyle Van Noy was met by the left guard after trying to sneak around Barmore. Winovich’s delayed rush did nothing to impact Winston.
Meanwhile, Deonte Harris came out of a trips bunch formation on the right side, running a simple comeback route against Jalen Mills, who had lined up eight yards off the line of scrimmage and had to protect against the deep ball.
The resulting pitch and catch was just … easy. Too easy.
Obviously, the Patriots had a number of chances to make a play after that, but it was a deflating moment in the game. In the old days, back when the Patriots won so many games that they had no real business winning, these were the moments where those games flipped. Now, with 11 losses since Week 2 of last season, that’s just not happening anymore.
Of course, it might have helped if, at the end of that long drive by New Orleans, the Patriots went ahead and threw 11 guys onto the field for Taysom Hill’s touchdown run. Maybe.
But maybe not! The Patriots’ defense had been gashed at that point, to the tune of 71 yards on 12 plays. An 11th player might have only postponed the inevitable on that play.
And it all goes back to that third-and-7. A stop there, and the clock-draining, game-ending drive is over before it begins.
On Monday morning, Belichick was asked if he gave any consideration to sending more rushers at Winston in that spot.
“Yeah, well they had um … New Orleans had mixed in — on third down — they had mixed in some protection. We pressured the first third down of the second drive, and they protected that and picked it up and ended up hitting I think it was [Marquez] Callaway on the sideline on third-and-9 or third-and-10 or something like that,” Belichick said. “So that’s something that we had done earlier, that they handled pretty well, you know. They ran a protection situation. Sean [Payton] does pretty good job of mixing that up, so I wasn’t that excited about running that again. That didn’t go very well first time.”
Personally, with the sell-out crowd at full-throat, and with the league’s premiere interception master taking the snap, I would’ve tried to force the issue. If not, then some tight coverage might have been the better play. The combination of no rush plus off coverage resulted in Winston simply playing catch with his receiver.
It wasn’t great. And we never got to see how Mac Jones and the offense might have handled the opportunity to embark on a game-tying touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter.
Well, that was one thought, huh? Let’s hit some more leftover thoughts from the Saints’ 28-13 win over the Patriots.
–I swear, this isn’t some rosy spin, because it’s not. The offense is painful to watch. Much like last year. So that’s not what I’m going for here.
BUT. I can’t help but think, if not for a fumble vs. Miami and a couple of picks vs. New Orleans (one of which had a lot of bad luck involved), it’s not hard to see the Patriots sitting at 2-1 or even 3-0. Again, the if, if, ifs don’t matter in the NFL. Obviously. They’re 1-2, they lost that fumble and threw those picks, so that’s what they are. There’s no changing that.
But I see that as some sort of caution to officially hit the eject button on the season — even if they’re almost certain to drop to 1-3 next weekend against the Bucs.
If they can clean up those very un-Patriot-like mistakes, if they can stop committing penalties, and if they can get their offensive line to live up to all of the offseason hype, then they could be able to actually win some of these close games.
That’s, obviously, a lot of ifs. As it stands in reality, the only game they’ve won involved the opposing quarterback quite literally giving them the football for most of the afternoon. So it is quite bad. And ugly. It merely remains possible that some of these L’s flip to W’s at some point this season.
–Julian Edelman was honored at halftime. That was nice. It was also kind of depressing.
Robert Kraft spoke to the crowd, and his message was essentially that playing a game in an empty stadium in last year’s COVID season was no way for Edelman’s great Patriots career to end. And he is right about that.
But … having him come back and see an offense that by and large simply can’t function at an NFL level? That’s not right either.
–Don’t mention Wes Welker, don’t mention Wes Welker, don’t mention Wes Welker, don’t — WES WELKER!
–On the whole, you kind of want to say the Patriots’ defense had a decent game. Maybe even a good game. Anecdotally speaking, they kept the Patriots in the game on a day when the offense was abysmal. They only allowed 252 yards. It was — at least in some areas — a good game.
But, like, not accounting for the Saints’ best player in the red zone?
Winston to Kamara for 6️⃣. #Saints
— NFL (@NFL) September 26, 2021
Or, having whatever this strategy was on a third-and-1?
Or allowing the Saints to score touchdowns in three of their four red zone trips? Allowing Jameis Winston to convert three straight third downs on 3-for-3 passing for 36 yards, moving the sticks twice and scoring a touchdown on the other?
Not particularly as good as it might seem on the surface level.
–Shoutout to Hunter Henry for the most aggressive false start of all time.
As the old saying goes: If you’re going to falsely start, make sure you falsely start at full speed.
(Jakobi Meyers also started his route on the hard count, making it a twofer false start, which is always fun.)
–I was a little confused on the Joe Cardona false start. He obviously lifted his head and shifted the ball a little, but it also looked like he had already done that twice. Yet with nobody jumping offside the first two times, no false start was called. When the Saints jumped across the line, they flagged Cardona.
I don’t know. Didn’t seem like the egregious head bob you usually see in such scenarios. But Cardona also seemed to react as if he knew the penalty was going to be called on him.
–The reasons were aplenty, but the bottom line is this: The Patriots gained 13 yards in the first quarter. It got a little better in the second quarter, with a somewhat effective two-minute drill before halftime. But hitting halftime with just five first downs and three points on the board is the recipe for losing a game, no matter what else is happening.
–Throw in the punt team allowing a block, the quarterback throwing a pick-six and another near-pick-six, and the Patriots kind of played the role of the Week 2 Jets in this one. That is never a role that anyone ever wants to play.
–Mac Jones will obviously be scrutinized six million ways from Sunday, because that’s what we do with quarterbacks. And for sure, he wasn’t great.
But I think this one play best sums up his afternoon:
Isaiah Wynn and Jakob Johnson getting smoked, two more pass rushers getting through the line, Jones backpedaling to save his life yet throwing a wonderful rainbow to hit his receiver in the hands.
He didn’t do that every time. Some of his deep balls were no bueno. But that constantly collapsing pocket was the theme of the day, and there’s simply no quarterback alive (short of Russell Wilson) who can thrive with an offensive line that’s playing as poorly as the Patriots’ line is playing right now.
–If you’re looking for silver linings of any sort, you can at least hang your hat on the fact that in the rare instances when he has a clean pocket, Mac Jones can and does deliver some dimes.
The tricky thing has been, you know, giving him clean pockets.
–Brandon Bolden has 1,075 rushing yards in eight-plus NFL seasons. He had four rushing yards in the 2016 season. He also had half as many carries as Damien Harris on Sunday.
I don’t quite get it.
Bolden had three rushes for negative-1 yards, getting a no-gain on a third-and-1, getting stuffed at the line on a first-and-10 at the 11-yard line, and then losing a yard on the next play. It was the ultimate “they’ll never see this coming!” play call, one supposes … but that didn’t really make it successful.
Damien Harris getting six carries all game is a bit puzzling. With Rhamondre Stevenson inactive for the second straight week, and with the team clearly hesitant to give J.J. Taylor more touches, the offense probably has to run through Harris more. Yet with just six carries — all of them coming in the first 31 minutes of the game — the Patriots clearly didn’t do that.
How they navigate the running back spot going forward will only get more complicated, as it sounds like James White will be out for a long time.
All summer long, we talked about and believed that the Patriots had a top five offensive line and one of the best running back groups in the league. Then the season started. It has been rough, to say the least.
–Anyways, the Bucs are coming in next week, so it’s almost assuredly going to get worse. After that, they’ll likely be 1-3, and the road to respectability can begin. With the Texans (Week 5) and Jets (Week 7) in the near future, some wins should come. But this team clearly has lots of work to do if it wants to revive any hope of entering the playoff conversation by December.
After all that money spent in the offseason, and all that excitement for the rookie quarterback, who imagined we’d already be having this conversation before the start of October?