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.
PANTHERS 33, PATRIOTS 30
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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.”