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.” 


Butler's exit signs continue to shine bright

Butler's exit signs continue to shine bright

FOXBORO -- Every Friday, Phil Perry and Mike Giardi will take your Patriots questions on Twitter and answer them as a joint mailbag -- or Friday Bag, as they call it.

Got questions? Tweet the guys using the hashtag #FridayBag. But for now, give the latest edition of the Bag a read.

Eddie!!! I’m putting the chances of his return at single digits and that was before this nonsense. His explanation seemed implausible to me. You could accidentally hit the retweet button but then you have to say yes to retweeting it. I don’t know. That’s never happened to me before and I tweet entirely too much. Liking something would have made more sense. Anyway, I think he’s been a pain in the butt and I think his play has suffered this year as he eyeballs free agency and a new contract.

Miguel checking in with a tough one off the bat. Let's eliminate specialists -- Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Joe Cardona -- from the equation. I think Gostkowski would be the clear winner if he was in the mix. He's impacted a lot of games in a positive way for them with his field goals and kick placement. If we go outside of that trio, the question gets tougher. Matthew Slater has been unavailable for much of the season. Nate Ebner is out. And the list of solid week-to-week contributors is long. I'm going to go with Jonathan Jones, who's been out there consistently and is one of their top players when it comes to covering kicks. The Patriots are among the best in the league when it comes to opposing starting field position, and it's because of players like Jones. Johnson Bademosi, Brandon King and Brandon Bolden all deserve honorable mention, but Jones is my choice. If Patriots opponents were more willing to allow the Patriots to return kicks, then Dion Lewis would be in the running as well. But he's taking a knee more often than not.

Rich, the Patriots ask their edge players to do a hell of a lot more than just set the edge. It’s why Rob Ninkovich was an ironman on that defense for a long time, why they drafted a player like Chandler Jones in the first round, and why they were quite confident in letting Dont’a Hightower expand his role in that regard before the injuries struck. The Pats also drafted Derek Rivers but lost him to a knee injury in the summer and made that ill-fated trade for Kony Ealy. One of the reasons Ealy didn’t work here was because he was unable/unwilling to handle some of those duties, which include dropping into coverage.

Let's set it at 6.5! Any more than two catches a game over the next three, I think, would be encouraging -- or it would mean someone's been injured. There's a lot to absorb for Britt, obviously, and he's competing with a pretty deep group of pass-catchers for looks. When Michael Floyd was here at the end of last season, he caught four passes in two games, and there were no Rob Gronkowski or Brandin Cooks to absorb targets. I'm taking the under.

The Malcolm Mitchell situation is a murky one. He's been in the building. He's been rehabbing. But as far as I understand it, even he's not entirely sure if there's a plan in place to bring him back this season. I think the Britt signing further muddies the picture.

He's nice depth if the Patriots are hoping to give Mitchell the full year off to heal and be an impact player for the foreseeable future.

Vincent Valentine is in a situation where he's also doing everything that's asked of him. He was encouraged by his progress midseason, and he stuck in Foxboro through the bye week to continue to stay on his rehab plan. What's happening now with Alan Branch -- who missed practice all week because of an injured knee and almost certainly won't be available Sunday -- could impact how the Patriots view a potential return for the second-year defensive tackle. Their defense has struggled against the run. They're allowing an average of 5.0 yards per carry, worst in the league. If Branch is going to miss some time moving forward, maybe that forces the Patriots to break glass on Valentine.

My answer might've been different a month or two ago. Back then, the concerns about Andrew Luck's shoulder weren't as alarming as they are now. Back then, Giants ownership hadn't yet made a big ugly mess of its quarterback situation. I still think there are going to be enough enticing opportunities out there for McDaniels to seriously consider taking one. His choice could be the Giants, who have talent in place and the perfect bridge quarterback ready to go. It could be the Bears, if he believes in Mitchell Trubisky. It could be the Browns, if McDaniels wants to go back to the Cleveland area, and if he can stomach the way ownership has handled things in recent years, and if he likes the idea of working with new general manager John Dorsey.

I don't think the opportunities are as shiny as they were earlier this season, but they are plentiful, and now may be as good a time as any for McDaniels to make his second run as a head coach.

Well, I’d say any quarterback who loses his top two options won’t be as good, right? Also, let’s give some credit to Miami. Defensive coordinator Matt Burke came up with a good plan and there were times where Brady was clearly unsure about what he was seeing. Combine that with receivers that had a hard time separating from press man coverage and you had the perfect storm Monday night. It’ll look a lot better this weekend in Pittsburgh. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict the Pats won’t go 0-for-11 on third downs.

I do think Derek Rivers will make an impact. First of all, if his knee can get right, and indications I've gotten are that rehab has gone well, he's athletic enough to make plays on the edge. Physically, his skill set should translate. We were starting to see flashes of that in training camp before he was injured. Second of all, it looks like he's going to have all kinds of opportunity. The picture on the edge could change depending on what the Patriots do in the draft and free agency, obviously, but after Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise and Kyle Van Noy, there aren't many edge defenders who look like locks for roles in 2018.

Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy have been very good of late, but they may be asked to play more if Branch can't go. How that impacts their legs late will be worth watching. Otherwise, the tackling at the second level needs to improve -- and it should. It's not often you see someone like Patrick Chung whiff in the hole to give up a big gain, which is what happened in Miami on one of Kenyan Drake's longest runs of the night. I don't think we'll see much in the way of drastic scheme change, especially since you can't sell out against the run and leave yourself vulnerable to the pass against the Steelers. If they clean up some technique, they'll improve. And remember, the Steelers haven't been very efficient running the football this year. Le'Veon Bell averages 3.9 yards per carry. That helps.

Jordan, you gotta figure this will be an area to address in the offseason, even with Rivers and Hightower coming back from their respective injuries. Also, Alan Branch hasn’t been the same player this year and Vincent Valentine has been on IR all season. I’d say depending on what happens at left tackle (Nate Solder’s in the last year of a two-year deal). this might be where a fair amount of resources are devoted.

The Patriots very rarely double with two corners unless it's a slot player and an outside guy. They also have been prone to using their second-best corner and a safety on an opposing team's No. 1. If they use Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler on Antonio Brown, they'd be using their top two outside corners. I don't see it. What I could see is Butler underneath with a safety over the top. And in the red zone? I wouldn't be shocked to see Butler with a linebacker or a slot player bracketing Brown. Butler hasn't been all that great when it comes to excelling leverage-wise when he has help this year -- there's an art to the double team -- so I also wouldn't be surprised if Jonathan Jones saw some work as the underneath player on Brown. I'd deploy Gilmore on JuJu Smith-Schuster (who has become Pittsburgh's No. 2) and Eric Rowe on Martavis Bryant.

Sebastian, what do you mean? African or European swallow? I’ll wait for your answer . . . 


Johnson Bademosi returns to Patriots practice, Alan Branch still absent


Johnson Bademosi returns to Patriots practice, Alan Branch still absent

FOXBORO — Johnson Bademosi is sick. Sick of missing practice!

The Patriots cornerback returned to the field Friday after being held out Thursday due to illness. That left Alan Branch as the only absence for Friday’s practice. 

Branch, who is dealing with a knee injury, has now missed three straight days of practice. That puts his status for Sunday’s game against the Steelers in doubt.