Curran: Talk isn't cheap - bad communication led to Patriots loss to Panthers

Curran: Talk isn't cheap - bad communication led to Patriots loss to Panthers

FOXBORO – We all had a lot of laughs when the Patriots were drafting every kid from Rutgers that wasn’t nailed down.

A punt protector out of Rutgers who transferred from Navy drafted with a pick acquired by trade? That would be the ideal Belichick selection. Hee hee. Ha ha. Ho ho.

The method to that particular Rutgers madness, Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio figured, was that the whole could be greater than the sum of its parts if there was no communications learning curve to overcome.

Did it work perfectly right away? Not really. Devin McCourty was Public Enemy No. 1 in 2012 at corner and moved to safety. Duron Harmon took some time to develop. Logan Ryan would go through phases of getting torched and was a fan piñata through the middle of last season.


But they were good enough as a crew – along with Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Patrick Chung, Malcolm Butler and a sprinkling of Eric Rowe – to be key components on a defense that won two Super Bowls in three seasons. A defense that, four games, and an offseason ago, held the Atlanta Falcons to 21 offensive points in the Super Bowl.

They had their tough days and they got beat. But they rarely looked stupid.

In 2016, the Patriots defense had the second-fewest explosive plays allowed (passes longer than 25 yards, runs longer than 10 yards) with 59. Through four games this season, they’ve allowed 24. That’s a pace for 96. They allowed eight explosive plays on Sunday.

They’ve allowed 55 plays of 10 or more yards so far this season. There were 17 plays of 10 or more yards Sunday against the Panthers.

Who’d managed three touchdowns so far this year. Who’d lost to the Saints 34-13 last week. Who were without their tight end Greg Olsen. Who beat the Patriots 33-30 and it could have been worse had it not been for a fumble on the New England seven in the third quarter. (More below.)

Defensively the Patriots played like they couldn’t find their ass with both hands stuffed in their back pockets. This from the team that won the Super Bowl in February. This for the coaching staff that – one month ago – we were praising to the heavens for its documented in the special “Do Your Job II.”

Did everyone suddenly get inept and moronic?

Or did the secondary brain drain caused by saying buh-bye to Ryan and hello to Gilmore send the Pats back to less than zero?

I would say apparently. Permanently? I doubt it strongly. But here’s what Belichick had to say in 2015 when he explained why the McCourty-Harmon-Ryan connection was so valuable.

“Communication on the defensive side of the ball, not just doing your job, but making sure everybody is playing together as a team and that it's coordinated, everyone understands how the people around them need to be in sync for the defense to work well,” Belichick said on WEEI. “I think all those guys have the same qualities. They are good players. They are good team players. They are good teammates and they work hard it. They don't show up and let it happen, they actually work to be good teammates and good communicators and guys that want to take the extra step to make sure they get it right, not just for their sake, but for the entire unit and team.”

In the offseason, the Patriots decided to let Ryan walk and upgraded the cornerback position with Stephon Gilmore. Ryan signed with Tennessee for three years and $30M. The Patriots signed Gilmore to a five-year, $65M contract. The acquisition of Gilmore didn’t just fill Ryan’s seat, it also ensured that Pro Bowler Malcolm Butler – who is playing quietly but grudgingly on a one-year tender as a restricted free agent – will head out for the territories after this season as well.  (More below)

Gilmore has consistently been a prime suspect when bad things happen defensively for the Patriots. He’s not the only guilty party – McCourty has been on the scene for plenty as have Rowe and Butler and Chung’s had some passes sail over his head as well – but it’s impossible to not look at Gilmore as the common denominator.

Maybe, as a player who excels in man-to-man coverage, the nuances of staying connected in zone are eluding him. Maybe the holdover secondary players are so used to knowing what each other is going to do aren’t as adept at verbally communicating with a new guy. Probably it’s just the process and the ceiling for Gilmore is higher than the ceiling for a player like Ryan and this is just part of what happens.

But the Patriots defensive lapses on Sunday cost them the game, left defensive coordinator Matt Patricia screaming on the bench and had every player in the secondary facing a phalanx of questioners after the game.

What’s the problem?

“Understanding what your job is for each play, each coverage,” Harmon sighed. “Your job changes every play, each coverage, each call that we have based on the formation. There’s moving parts. We just need to have an understanding that your job can switch at any time.

“It’s multiple things,” he continued. “I wish I could tell you one thing but it’s literally multiple things. It’s assignments. It’s not talking (on some plays), it’s thinking somebody is going to do something and they do something different. We just got to find that trust so we can get where we want to go. Anytime you lose you’re frustrated because you put so much into it during the week. We’re frustrated because we’re literally not doing what we’re supposed to. We’re letting the team down.”

Sometimes, mistakes beget mistakes. In the pre-GPS days, when you were trying to get somewhere and took a wrong turn because you forgot, the next thing you knew, every turn seemed suspect. You went from a little misplaced to totally lost.

McCourty said that’s not the case. On the sidelines, they iron out the issues so that when they return to the field they aren’t peeking out the corner of their eye to make sure the other guy is doing his job. Which may partially explain why the entire defense chased Christian McCaffrey when he went in motion and nobody looked back to see Fozzy Whitaker open for a screen pass that he took 28-yard for a touchdown.  

“Every other play it’s just someone else,” McCourty said. “It’s across the board. We meet. We practice. We do all of those things. We’re not reinventing anything out there. I wouldn’t even say anybody’s new anymore. We’ve been here since April. It’s too long ago to be talking about 'This guy’s gone…' and honestly it doesn’t matter. I think we’ve all played enough, we had four games but we had preseason games, we practiced against other teams. … We just got to keep at it. Nobody’s going to come in here off the street and fix all our problems. We just gotta keep working at it. We’re putting our offense in a shootout every week. This team has great character and guys are gonna stick together. We put a lot of work in here each week. Our coaches demand a lot of us, we demand a lot of ourselves, it’s disappointing.”

The best news for this team is that it doesn’t have a week to chew on its mistakes. They play Thursday in Tampa. Harmon said the noise outside is the last thing he’ll be hearing.

“If social media is your biggest worry this week, you’re in the wrong place,” he said. “We got a big game coming up Thursday with the Bucs. Jameis Winston, Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, they’re gonna be ready. We’re gonna get everybody’s best each and every week. Nobody’s  gonna come out here and lay down for us and we gotta be ready to go and match that intensity each and every play.” 


Bill Belichick: 'Incomprehensible' to think Patriots would pick up from where they left off last season


Bill Belichick: 'Incomprehensible' to think Patriots would pick up from where they left off last season

Bill Belichick knows that people outside his organization expected big things from his team this season, but he gave a long explanation for how those expectations should have been tempered headed into 2017. 

Belichick was asked during a conference call on Monday how he balances week-to-week adjustments with the foundation of the system his team installed before the season began. What resulted was a 789-word response on how teams have to come together early in the year -- and why it's difficult for things to look like they're running smoothly through the few weeks of the regular season. 

It felt like Belichick had something he was itching to share on the topic, so here is Belichick's response in full . . . 

"Well, I’ll just say that when you start the season, you have, let’s call it 20 practices, not including the spring. So let’s call it 20 practices and some preseason games, and during that time you’re trying to evaluate your team, work on a lot of basic and fundamental things and I’ll say basically get your team ready to play not only on the opening day, but for getting conditioned and build your fundamentals and all that so that you can compete in the 16-game regular season.

"In those 20 practices and however many preseason games certain players play in – two, three, four, whatever it is – against other teams that are doing the same thing, so you’re not getting schemed, you’re not getting game planned, you’re not getting some of the more sophisticated and the higher degree of difficulty things in any phase of the game. You’re in more of an evaluation mode and a fundamental mode. That’s where you’re at, and then as you get into the season, you build on that and you have things that attack certain schemes or you have to use to address certain issues that your opponent is trying to pressure you with.

"Maybe you just sit in your base, whatever it is, to handle it. Maybe your basics handle it, but maybe you need to go a little bit beyond that or maybe you see opportunities to create a play that you might install on a weekly game plan basis, and then all that accumulates. So, when you go from 20 practices to, let’s call it 60 practices over halfway through the season, maybe 80 practices at the end of the season, you’re going to have a lot more in with 80 practices and you could probably triple the number of meetings on that and everything else then where you’re going to have after a relatively short period in training camp. So, along those same lines, I mean, if we keep running the same play all year, the same ones that you put in in training camp and keep running those same plays all year, it’s not that difficult in this league to figure out what those few things are and game plan accordingly.

"So, if you don’t increase the volume of your scheme on offense, defense and special teams, then every week, your opponent’s just looking at a handful of things and probably most of them they’ve seen before. So, I don’t know how much problem, how much stress you’re really putting on your opponent if that’s the way that you do it. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing because you can play your basic stuff, and if it’s working well and if you’re doing well with it and people can’t handle it, then there’s no reason to change it. But I don’t know how many teams in the league fall into that category. I wouldn’t say it’s an exceedingly high number and it never really has been, based on my experience in the league. Although, I’m not saying that can’t happen, but I would certainly say that’s not the most common way that teams evolve throughout the course of the year. 

"So, you do what you need to do each week to try to win. You put in the plays, make the adjustments, you don’t want to overload things – I mean, nobody’s talking about putting in a new offense every week. That’s not it at all, but are there some modifications you can make? Sure, and as you rep those and you use them and if those situations come up again, then maybe you can fall back to that same type of scheme. But to think realistically, which it’s incomprehensible to me, but, I mean, I don’t know. 

"Maybe I just can’t figure it out, but it’s incomprehensible to me how anybody could think that a team that’s practiced for six months and played 19 regular-season and postseason games and had triple-digit practices, five months later, after not playing a game, after having a fraction of that type of experience, could be anywhere close to the level of execution that they were five months before that after all of the things that I just listed. I mean, it’s impossible in my view. So, each year, you start all over again. You start that process all over again. You build your team over the course of the year though practice repetitions, through preseason to regular season games, through the evolving of your scheme, and that’s why each year is different and unique. But, I understand I’m in the minority and most other people don’t see it that way, which is OK, but that’s the way I see it."

Malcom Brown helps spark Patriots run defense vs. Jets


Malcom Brown helps spark Patriots run defense vs. Jets

The Patriots use a defensive scheme that often asks its defensive tackles to do the dirty work. Two-gap. Take on multiple blockers. Free up linebackers to crash down and make tackles in one-on-one situations with opposing running backs. 

It's not the most glamorous job. Sometimes it's difficult to see in real time when one of the big bodies up front is executing his duties effectively or not. But it's a critical role all the same.

On Sunday at MetLife Stadium, the Patriots got some solid work from their tackles to help limit the Jets to 3.1 yards per carry and just 74 rush yards total. Malcom Brown stood out as the team's top tackle on the day, and one of his team's best defensive players overall. 

The third-year 320-pounder had four tackles that limited to the Jets to gains of two yards or less. He also picked up a sack when he chased Josh McCown across the field and touched him down behind the line of scrimmage in the third quarter.

Brown was flagged for a defensive holding call just before Austin Seferian-Jenkins' fumble -- he locked onto the first blocker that engaged him and then didn't release quickly enough when that blocker tried to move on to another Patriots defender -- but overall it was a strong day, according to his head coach.

"I think Malcom’s improved pretty much every week," Bill Belichick said on a conference call Monday. "I know he’s definitely helping us making some significant plays for us out there and, again, eating up a lot of plays in front of him so that other guys, like Elandon [Roberts], Kyle [Van Noy], Dont’a [Hightower] and those guys, can fit in and make the tackles."

Brown wasn't alone. Lawrence Guy was in on a pair of run stuffs that went for two yards or less, and he was credited with three total tackles. Alan Branch played in 22 snaps after being made a healthy scratch in Week 5, and Adam Butler saw 17 snaps on the line.

"I thought we got contributions from all those players . . . They all have a little bit different playing style, but they were all productive," Belichick said. "It certainly helps our linebacker play when the defensive line plays consistent and they can do a good job in front and then the linebackers can do a good job and then the secondary can fit off them, so it works in front of that. 

"But, I thought our defensive line did a lot of good things yesterday. There’s still a lot of things we need to work on, obviously. I’m not saying we’re there yet, but we did a lot of good things up front."

Coming into the game allowing 5.0 yards per rushing attempt, what the Patriots were able to accomplish against the Jets in the run game -- behind a stout performance by Brown and his teammates in the trenches -- can certainly qualify as a step in the right direction.