SEATTLE -- Close to three weeks ago, after the Patriots failed to close out the Baltimore Ravens, I took a deep look at the team's recent failures to lock things down at the end. Specifically, the Patriots vaunted offense. Three games later andthey've failed twice more in closeout situations. And it's getting to the point where the Patriots are either going to blow teams out or tighten up at the end. Seize. Gag. Choke. The defense is what it is. Flawed in the secondary, susceptible to stupidity. The offense? It's the league's best with the league's best quarterback. It should be able to play keepaway in the final minutes. It has the horses. Too many of them, maybe. And so it was on Sunday, with two chances to shut down Seattle and win a game in which they outplayed the Seahawks, the Patriots spit the bit. First, they took over with 7:21 remaining and -- after picking up two first downs and burning 3:14 -- they punted. They got a quick three-and-out from Seattle. At that point, if you were a Seahawks fan, you had to be beside yourself. Not only did your offense manage nothing -- throwing out-of-bounds downfield on third-and-3 -- you were giving the ball back to the league's No. 1 offense. And the Patriots -- who hadn't gone three plays and out this season prior to Sunday -- went three-and-out. Seattle got the ball back with 2:38 left. The rest is ugly history. Last week, it was a Stevan Ridley fumble that ended the Patriots' first closeout drive. This week, it was a little of everybody.This wasn't the Seahawks making otherworldly plays. There was no Manning to Manningham here.There was nosingularly great defender bending the game to his will. This was the Patriots. Screwing up. "They didn't do nothing," said Deion Branch. "Everything, all the mistakes made on the field were by us. They were self-inflicted mistakes. As the game went on, they really didn't do anything to stop us. The flags, the interceptions, the dropped balls, things of that nature. That's stuff that we control."Some of the decisions made byTom Brady were mystifying. His throw to Branch when the wideout was running down the seam in the third quarter never should have been thrown. Not only does Branchstruggle to outrun defenders, he's small and doesn't elevate well. And Brady underthrew Branch -- a cardinal sin the quarterback rarely commits because he knows that's where trouble lives. After the pick,Brady'sdisgusted reaction seemed to indicate he felt the same way. Prior to that play, the Patriots had gains of 12, 15 and 5 yards. "We never really took 'em out and we had the opportunities," said Branch. "We had turnovers, defensive things. It was like we never finished them when we had the opportunity and it was there." Asked about the apparent pass interference on him that went uncalled on the Patriots final drive while leading, Branch said, "That's how it goes. I'm one of the last guys that'll complain. There were a couple in the end zone that were flagrant. But I spoke to the guys and that's football. It's hard for them to see everything on the field."Brady didn't bristle at the suggestion the Pats lack a killer instinct. But he did try to defend the offense a bit, saying, "We did last week against Denver. I thought we made some plays at the end to do it. We just didn't do it this week."They really didn't. And this isn't a mixed bag, either. Whether it's a Stephen Gostkowski miss against the Cardinals or Ridley's fumbles or Brady's poor second half or Wes Welker failing to make a great catch in the Super Bowl when a great catch was needed, there are breakdowns on the regular. "There's 11 guys out there," said Logan Mankins. "We gotta do it as a unit. Everyone's gotta be on the same page and doing things the right way and sometimes not all 11 are doing it."We had chances in the red zone right before half we don't score," Mankins pointed out. "We were down there again and turned it over. We had our chances and we didn't score enough points. We shoulda been in the 30s and we didn't get it done. Faltered on four-minute again at the end of the game. When it was time to make plays we didn't make 'em." The Patriots could be 6-0 very easily. The margin of loss is very nearly as small as it can be. Yet this is a Patriots team that -- in close games -- finds a way to lose. These titans of situational football, a true post-free agency dynasty in the same way the 49ers were in the '80s and '90s, is time and again failing in the clutch. What else do you call that other than choking? They are being outperformed at the end by lesser teams who -- given their victory celebrations -- know they are lesser teams. Branch said, "Regardless of what you see on paper, we gotta win the games, we gotta be able to finish the game and that starts with mistake-free football."For a franchise that so often found a way to win over the past decade, the current Patriots excel at finding a way to lose.
AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. - Bill Belichick’s never been shy about getting the players who play the best on the field as much as possible.
So, when he looked at a crowded secondary this summer, the Patriots’ coach didn’t view every spot as a defined position. Instead, he analyzed the skill set of his players and decided that the Pats needed their top three safeties - Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Pat Chung - on the field as much as possible. Just past the midway point of the season, Belichick and his defensive coaching staff have managed to do that quite a bit.
- Why Burkhead's big night in Denver was no fluke
- #FridayBag: The difference between Kraft and Jones
- How investment in special teams is paying off
McCourty missed one defensive snap all season, the last play of the opener (590). Harmon has often times found himself as that single-high safety (479) while - as illustrated earlier - Chung has played 83 percent of the snaps, although about a third of those designated as a cornerback (494 total/333 as safety). There are only two other teams in the NFL that play three safeties as often as the Patriots: the Chiefs (Ron Parker, Daniel Sorensen and Eric Murray) and Broncos (Justin Simmons, Darian Stewart and Will Parks).
When I asked Belichick about all that the responsibilities he puts on that safety trio, the coach wouldn’t single out just those three. He also highlighted veterans Nate Ebner and Jordan Richards.
“That’s good group really with Pat, Devin, Duron, Jordan, Nate gives us a lot in the kicking game. That’s five guys that all help us in a lot of different ways…they all are pretty versatile,” said Belichick.
Versatility is a critical element to the Patriots being able to put those players on the field and keep them there, no matter what the opposition throws New England’s way.
“You see Jordan play strong safety, you see Jordan come in in multiple defensive back sets. You see Chung play a corner type of role sometimes. I play a corner type of role. I think it allows us to say ‘if they come out in this personnel, we’ll be ok’” said Devin McCourty. “We’ll just match up these guys in whatever different role in the defense and it’ll work.”
Of course, sometimes that’s easier said than done when you consider what personnel the opposing team can employ. In the opener against Kansas City, the Pats tried and failed to match up with an explosive grouping that including Tyreek Hill and DeAnthony Thomas, wide receivers who can line up in the backfield and take a handoff as well.
The opponent Sunday, Oakland, doesn’t have those kinds of pieces, but the Raiders still have players in place that can keep defensive coordinators up at night. The suspicion here though is that Matt Patricia sleeps better than most, in part because of his secondary.
“A team like Oakland will come in what we call ‘oh 1’ personnel where they have four receivers and [tight end Jared] Cook on the field, which is kind of like a fifth receiver,” noted McCourty. “We can easily stay in different groups and say ‘all right, this is how we want to match that.’ Where if we didn’t have that versatility we’d have to start to run corners on and then they keep [Marshawn] Lynch on the field in place of Cook and run the ball. There’s so many different things that the offense can do to mismatch personnel. Having the versatility and players who understand different roles allows players to stay calm and match up.”
There’s also an unseen element to what this safety group brings to the field every week. That’s their experience, not just in the NFL, but together. There’s comfort in knowing the guy next to you has seen the same things you have and can go through their mental Rolodex to recall and adjust to personnel groupings and formation changes that maybe weren’t prepared for during the week (yes, even with Belichick as the coach that happens).
“I’ve been playing with Pat and Dev - all of us being together - this has been four years and you don’t catch that too often, especially three safeties,” said Harmon. “I just think us being able to be in a whole bunch of different positions, being able to learn from each other and playing together has allowed us to even been more versatile with each other and be able to run more things, have a better feel for the defense and put ourselves in maybe different positions that you wouldn’t put anyone else in.”
“We don’t have many groups like us that have been together for the last four or five years,” said McCourty. “We don’t always break things down as the strong safety, free safety, the money back, like a lot of things we did, it’s just a position, a spot on the field. I think we all understand that all three of us or all four of us on the field at any time can play at any of those positions. I think that allows us to say, ‘Remember last time we did this, in this game, you were here and you were there’ but this time because this is what they like you go here and I’ll go there. This that allows us to understand what we do defensively but also match it to whatever the offense does. Obviously, that’s what the coaches want to do. When the players can do that, it always helps.”
Belichick knows this and it’s pretty clear this trait - the ability to adjust on the fly - is something he appreciates a great deal. That’s why over the past five games, you haven’t noticed nearly as much movement and - let’s face it - confusion as there was in that first month. The players have shared history to fall back on and it’s smoothed out the communication and led to a much higher level of play.
“We can definitely go back to things that maybe we haven’t done in a while, talk about how we used this against Tampa or we used this against Buffalo or somebody and there’s good recall and good application of it,” Belichick said. “Yeah, there’s times where that definitely helps. Same thing on the offense, with guys like Tom [Brady], James White, Rob [Gronkowski], Danny [Amendola] - guys that have done things together for multiple years. You got a situation that’s similar to a situation you had awhile back, you can go back and refer to that. You’re not going to be able to do that with Deatrich Wise or [Jacob] Hollister. They just haven’t had that kind of experience. But with experienced players, sure, that comes up from time to time. That’s a good reference.”
So, don’t be surprised Sunday in Mexico City if you see Harmon shaded over the top of Amari Cooper, or McCourty in the box providing an extra run fit, or Chung playing slot corner or linebacker. It’s old hat for a group that is asked to do more and routinely responds well to those challenges.
Each week, Tom E. Curran, Phil Perry and Mike Giardi answer your Patriots questions in a joint mailbag, or FridayBag as they call it. Got a question for the trio? Tweet at them using the hashtag #FridayBag. Now, on to this week's submissions:
TC: Hey Bryan,
No, I haven’t asked directly but there are a few reasons Kraft wouldn’t fall in line with Jones. First, by “on this” I’m not sure if you mean the compensation package or the Elliott investigation/suspension mess. Jones, of course, has been using the compensation package as a front to attack Goodell’s competency in general which he now bemoans because A) Elliott got suspended and B) Jones assured everyone Elliott wouldn’t be suspended. Kraft wouldn’t support Jones on Elliott because the accusations against him revolve around violence against women. Even if some accusations seem conflated, unsubstantiated or have a whiff of retribution, Kraft isn’t going to rally for Elliott on this. No upside to it. And if it’s an over-the-top penalty levied by the league in an effort to “make up” for past domestic violence investigations the league’s butchered, well, Kraft knows a thing or two about being on the receiving end of an agenda-laden punishment handed down by 345 Park Avenue. Kraft didn’t exactly suck it up and take the punishment. In fact, his reaction in August of 2015 and the organization’s continued effort to chastise the NFL with the Wells Report in Context website are in stark contrast to Kraft’s May 2015 pledge to stand down on Deflategate for the good of the league. Kraft gave plenty of pushback. But he stopped short of putting Goodell on the spit because he believes it hurts the overall brand and he’s more conciliator than divider. The feeling in Foxboro has been – and I’m sure continues to be – that the problem isn’t Goodell but his minions. The league needs an enema.
@PhilAPerry @MikeGiardi @tomecurran Larry Fitgerald has a no-trade clause in his extension. How will the Pats aquire him now? Injury-release, outright release, Texas hold ‘em, re-naming themselves the Arizona Cardinals? #FridayBag https://t.co/oCy9j24dbU— Rich Powell (@cultmojo) November 17, 2017
TC: Rich, they are running out of options. He is their White Whale. How hysterical would it be if – at the end of it all – he signs a one-day contract to retire as a Patriot? Gotta make this happen.https://twitter.com/MrQuindazzi/status/931295571264131072
#FridayBag Do we see a heavy dose of Burkehead in an Edelamesque role over the middle going forward?— Mr.Quindazzi (@MrQuindazzi) November 16, 2017
TC: Great question, Q. Of all the guys running the option routes, Burkhead seems to be the most sudden in his cuts while also being able to gain quick and wide separation out of them. It’s lateral quickness and explosiveness that makes Edelman a unique cover for any defense. All the wideouts are quick, but being able to disguise the route, set up the move and then – when making the cut – cover a lot of ground with the first steps is what sets Edelman apart as evidenced by his short-shuttle time. I agree with you.
@PhilAPerry Per the Slants podcast, the pats focused on the Broncos communication and substitution challenges. What are the Oakland weaknesses that the Pats focus on? What round do you draft Mayo in your Southie YMCA league? #FridayBag— Jeff Harrelson (@jharrelson11) November 17, 2017
PP: Jeff is a CHRONIC Quick Slants the Podcast listener, and we thank him for that. He's right in that the Patriots took advantage of Denver on a couple of occasions when they tried to substitute last weekend, and that's something they'll pounce on every week if they could. We highlighted just how good they've gotten at that whole operation here. When it comes to the Raiders, I think you'll see the Patriots exploit their linebackers in coverage as often as possible. (You'll remember, they did that against the Broncos, too.) Oakland is one of the worst teams in the league at defending tight ends and running backs in the passing game, and the Patriots will have no problem recycling their offensive game plan from Mile High for Mexico City.
Amazon was no help, defaulting to you here: has there been a book written about BB’s leadership style and how it evolved into what it is today? A “BB Method” is you will.— MTN (@Lighthouse7MTN) November 17, 2017
PP: Mike, I'll mention the classics here even if you've already thumbed through them more than once: David Halberstam's The Education of a Coach and Michael Holley's Patriot Reign are both very good looks at Belichick and how he came to run his operation the way he does. But you already knew that. When it comes to one book specific to Belichick, specific to his leadership style? May have to wait on that one. For now, though, watch this. Good interview with CNBC's Suzy Welch from last offseason. Belichick discusses the tenants of his leadership style, the value of surrounding yourself with dependable people, and why he doesn't like social media (it's not just because he's 65). I'd also suggest this podcast that Belichick recorded with lacrosse buddy Paul Rabil. Interesting back-and-forth on why Belichick likes to keep the numbers on his coaching staff small, team culture, short-term focus and frequency of organizational meetings.
Will the reunited Bennett/Gronkowski duo help cure the red zone issues?— Riz (@riz_6) November 17, 2017
PP: It could, Riz. Precision is paramount in the red zone. Space is at a premium. Accuracy is critical. And having big targets who don't need all that much room to create room for themselves -- like Gronkowski, Bennett or Dwayne Allen, who scored while well-covered in Denver -- makes life that much easier.
Hey Phil. Great article on special teams. Seems that unit has become our most consistent group. In addition, the o-line and secondary have started to play solid ball. Where do you see our biggest weakness? (Marty took care of TE depth).— Rich Powell (@cultmojo) November 17, 2017
PP: Thanks, Rich. For anyone who hasn't seen that one, which lays out how Patriots players feel like they have an All-Star special-teams unit, here's the link. I'd say the biggest weakness is still what I thought it was back before the trade deadline: pass-rush. They'll try to scheme up what they can by disguising who's coming and who's dropping into coverage, but at some point, they'll need pass-rushers to win one-on-one battles and disrupt good quarterbacks. I think Trey Flowers can do that. I think Kyle Van Noy can do that from time to time. I think Deatrich Wise has shown he has the potential to do that. After that, I think the Patriots are lacking in that area. They'll need their secondary to be lock-down to help cover-up for any deficiencies they have up front.
PP: Bilingual Shimon checking in! I believe that says something about bombs to Cooks? Yep. That's in play. The Patriots really should be able to do what they want against this Raiders defense. Their secondary is in shambles as NBC Bay Area's Scott Blair told me on one of our podcasts this week. I still think the Patriots will turn to their backs in the passing game because I'm not sure they'll want to turn Khalil Mack loose on many Tom Brady seven-step drops. But there will be opportunities on all areas of the field -- short, intermediate and deep.
Is Gillislee a healthy scratch again or does he finally break a long run against the raiders?— Trevor Williams (@Clevertrevv) November 17, 2017
PP: Interesting question on Gillislee. Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis did nothing the other night that would suggest they'll see their roles diminished in any way, but the injury to Matthew Slater could open up a game-day roster spot for the Patriots to activate five backs in Mexico. Even if Gillislee is active, though, I wouldn't expect a huge role for him so long as Lewis and Burkhead are healthy. Right now he looks like valuable insurance and a potential cold-weather hammer against teams that won't want to tackle a 219-pound back who runs hard.
R u seeing justice league this weekend ?— Shy Sullivan (@CheyenneSulli14) November 17, 2017
PP: Big two-year-old birthday party for my nephew on Saturday, Shy, so it's going to be more of a Mickey Mouse weekend for me. Then on Sunday, of course, we'll be working. You're going to want to watch Pregame Live, coming at you at 2:30 p.m. Then right after the game you'll have an epic Postgame Live and an equally-enjoyable Sports Sunday. See you then.
Why has James White's playing time been down the past few games? Are the coaches that high on Lewis or is this simply a game to game thing?— Jacob Moore (@jabo1331) November 16, 2017
MG: The Patriots have been more committed to running the football of late -- 32 rushes versus the Chargers and 26 against the Broncos in a game in which they lost a possession because of excellent special-teams work and had a short field on another. That commitment has revolved heavily around the two players that are running the ball the best right now: Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead. James White is still a valuable piece and will have plenty of big moments from here until the end of the season, though I will tell you, he’s still kicking himself for that missed blitz pickup of Justin Simmons down in the red zone Sunday night.
Who can return frim IR?— OFORILLYDAGOD (@Badseedz187) November 16, 2017
MG: They blew one of their two eligible to return spots on Shea McClellin, who appeared to be ready to return from those concussion symptoms but then had a setback in his final week of practice before he needed to be put on the active roster. That leaves two players for one spot (assuming both are healthy): DT Vincent Valentine or WR Malcolm Mitchell. The Pats' interior defensive line hasn’t been as good as it needs to be, which leads me to think Valentine might be the play; however, depth has really been challenged at wide receiver, and by the end of Sunday’s game in Denver, the Pats had just three healthy wideouts (Cooks, Amendola and Dorsett). Mitchell just began running a few weeks back, though, as he recovered from training camp knee surgery, so who knows how that’s responded to date
Do you think they are priming Phillip Dorsett for a breakout moment game, or is just a sleeper?— mplspatsfan (@mplspatsfan1) November 16, 2017
MG: Negative, though don’t take that as a bad thing. I think Dorsett has tremendous speed but is still learning the playbook and earning Tom Brady’s trust. He may never have a breakout game this season but when he’s on the field, opposing teams have to respect his ability to go vertical. That can open up stuff underneath or if they flood a zone. He still has a purpose and can be a useful player.
Hi Mike! Now that the Patriots are on the home stretch, do you think we’ll see more of the running game, or will it be a matter of whatever the opponents defense gives them? Breath easy, bud.— Pete🇺🇸🇺🇸 (@usafss74) November 16, 2017
MG: Pete! I worked out and was so wobbled at the knees I thought I was having the big one (Elizabeth), but a gallon of water cured what ailed me at this high altitude. Anyway, I think you’re already seeing a greater commitment to the run game. The offensive line is blocking it up better, they’re controlling down and distance, and it’s allowed the play-action pass game to thrive (see the 26-yarder to Gronk versus Denver). Belichick said Tuesday they’ll do whatever they have to do to win, but right now, the steady balance is keeping Brady upright and putting opposing defenses in a quandary.
Not a lot of Gillislee chatter this week, what was the “healthy scratch” reasoning last week? And is there something internal going on with him that nobody knows about? #Imback— Todd Landry (@tjland99) November 16, 2017
MG: Landry, I knew you couldn’t quit me . . . Look, I don’t have any Gilislee theories right now, nor have I heard anything on the rumor mill. What I think is that Lewis and Burkhead are just running it better, so why waste a roster spot on Gillislee if he’s just going to get a handful of plays or touches? I wouldn’t say he’s going to be married to the pine the rest of the way. Hell, we know about Lewis and Burkhead’s injury histories, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he is in street clothes again Sunday.
John Lynch says there's no rush to play your boy Jimmy. So why the heck did he trade for him?— Dave Green (@DavidMGreen) November 16, 2017
MG: John Lynch is saying stupid things. Jimmy is the big dog and Lynch knows it. And if he keeps up with this nonsense, I may have to make a pit stop in San Fran and set him straight #FreeJimmyG