Patriots

Home warriors no longer: Pats lose second of season at Gillette

Home warriors no longer: Pats lose second of season at Gillette

FOXBORO -- This was supposed to be the cushy part of the Patriots schedule.

After playing three of their first four games at home and falling on Sunday to the Panthers, 33-30, the Patriots are 2-2. Uncharacteristically for them, both losses have come at Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots have traditionally been dominant with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. 

As they look ahead, the Patriots will play their next two games on the road (at Tampa Bay and at the Jets). They play seven of their next 10 away from home (including one against the Raiders that's scheduled to take place in Mexico City), meaning that if they're going to find their way, it's going to take place at some unfamiliar venues.

PANTHERS 33, PATRIOTS 30

"We just haven’t done a good job at home," Brady said after the game. "At the end of the day, I mean, it’s not really where you play. It’s how you play, and road, home, night, day, one o’clock, four o’clock. It’s really how you play. We just haven’t done a great job putting together four quarters of football."

Brady's done just about all he can. The team may be 1-3 if not for Brady's clutch last-minute drive that resulted in a touchdown to Brandin Cooks to beat the Texans in Week 3. 

The Patriots quarterback has 1,399 yards passing through the first four games and is on pace for an NFL record 5,596 yards. His 10 touchdowns puts him on pace for 40. He's the first player in NFL history to pass for at least 1,000 yards with 10 touchdowns and no picks through four games twice in his career (2015). 

He's been as good as ever.

The secondary, on the other hand, has plenty of room for improvement. They took the blame for how things turned out on Sunday, as Cam Newton threw for 316 yards, completing 22-of-29 passes with three touchdowns and one pick. The Panthers completed five pass plays of 20 yards or more.

That it happened at home made an already ugly day even more worrisome.

"It's concerning. Never want to lose games at home," Duron Harmon said. "It's already hard enough to win games on the road, and we've dropped two at home. We just gotta play better. Gotta be more focused. We gotta go. Already a quarter through the season, four games. And right now we're just up and down, up and down. Inconsistent. In all areas on defense. Just gotta be better."

Just how good have the Patriots been in Foxboro? Brady came into the season with a career mark of 101-16 at home in the regular season. Since the start of the 2009 season, the Patriots have lost just five regular season games at home with Brady playing start-to-finish. (They lost the regular-season finale to the Bills in 2014 in a game that didn't impact playoff seeding.) The last time they lost twice in the regular season at home with Brady at quarterback was in 2012, when they fell to the Cardinals and then the 49ers.

Patriots defenders know that Brady continues to play well enough to win at home, and they know they have to hold up their end of the bargain if the results in Foxboro -- or anywhere else -- are going to improve.

"We've been putting our offense in a shootout every week," Devin McCourty said. "It's almost like they have to get seven or three points on a drive so I'm sure they must be frustrated with our defense."

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Make a splash on the edge or stick with the kids?

Make a splash on the edge or stick with the kids?

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at a position where the Patriots have plenty of bodies but an unknown number of difference-makers: Edge defender. 

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED


No position group saw greater change through training camp than Bill Belichick's group of edge players. Rob Ninkovich retired. Kony Ealy was cut. Shea McClellin and Derek Rivers had season-ending injuries. When Harvey Langi was injured in a car accident and Dont'a Hightower suffered a season-ending pectoral injury, the team was dangerously thin on the outside. The Patriots tried to fill in over the course of the season with a series of Band-Aids. Cassius Marsh got the first crack but was eventually sent packing. The Patriots plucked Eric Lee from the Bills practice squad. They signed James Harrison late. By season's end, Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise saw more pass-rush work than anyone else. Wise flashed his potential but also experienced some rookie growing pains. Flowers was really, really good in 993 snaps -- more than any Patriots defensive lineman since Ninkovich played 1,040 in 2014 - but he didn't have much in the way of consistent help on the other side. 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Hightower, Flowers, Rivers, Wise, Lee, Shea McClellin, Trevor Reilly, Harvey Langi, Geneo Grissom, Keionta Davis

WHO ISN'T?
Harrison

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


The Patriots have numbers here. But there are questions that need answering. How healthy will Hightower and McClellin be in 2018? And will they be better suited to play off the line or on the edge? What will Rivers look like after tearing his ACL? How will Wise and Langi develop? If everyone's back and they're all ready to play significant roles, is the need really all that dire? In reality, the Patriots could probably use another addition here, maybe a free agent who's a known commodity. The Patriots have plenty of lottery tickets that could hit in 2018, but adding a dependable option to play opposite Flowers would make sense.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


The two top edge defenders in free agency will be Demarcus Lawrence (25 years old) of the Cowboys and Ezekiel Ansah (28) of the Lions. The Patriots would have to be willing to commit serious money to either one. More cost-effective options would be Alex Okafor (who tore his Achilles late last season), Trent Murphy (who might be a good fit in New England's multiple fronts), Adrian Clayborn (capable against both the run and the pass), Connor Barwin (missed just two games in the last seven seasons), Jeremiah Attaochu (former second-rounder who may still have some untapped potential) and 38-year-old Julius Peppers (a potential stop-gap while young Patriots pass-rushers grow into pros). Options there. But because this isn't seen as a particularly strong draft class when it comes to edge players, there will be competition for each.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


NC State's Bradley Chubb is the early favorite to be the first edge defender off the board this spring, but he's not viewed by everyone to be a game-changing pass-rush talent. Pro Football Focus has compared him to Bills 2016 first-rounder Shaq Lawson. Behind him? Question marks abound. Marcus Davenport from Texas-San Antonio was dominant last season...but against seriously inferior competition. LSU's Arden Key may be the most talented pass-rusher available, but he left the team last spring, leading to questions about his commitment to the sport. Boston College's Harold Landry looked like a top-15 pick before last season, but he was slowed by injury in 2017, his production fell, and now so has his draft stock. Maybe the Patriots can find a physically-gifted edge-setter or pass-rusher in the middle rounds -  as they did with Flowers in 2015 - but there doesn't seem to be a ton of certainty at the top of the class here.

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


Because the Patriots are well-stocked with young players at this spot - Flowers, Rivers, Wise and Langi will all be 25 or younger when the 2018 season begins - snagging a reliable veteran for the rotation might be the best course of action. Would Barwin be willing to jump coasts after a year with the Rams in order to join the Patriots while Belichick's 20-somethings grow as professionals? What about Peppers? Could the Patriots coax him to leave Carolina for a one-year deal? He hasn't missed a game in 10 years, and he's missed just six total in his career. Maybe Belichick and Nick Caserio will be willing to go big here and shell out long-term dough to make sure they have both edges locked down for the foreseeable future. But with other needs to fill, and with myriad options already on the roster, it wouldn't be surprising if the team stood pat. It really all depends on how they view their youngsters. If they believe, there's little use in spending on, say, Lawrence or Ansah. If they don't, then there could be a splash coming. 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

McCourty reiterates Patriots players knew Butler wouldn't start in Super Bowl

butler.jpg
AP Photo

McCourty reiterates Patriots players knew Butler wouldn't start in Super Bowl

Devin McCourty said immediately after Super Bowl LII that players knew Malcolm Butler's role had changed. Two weeks later, that story hasn't changed.

After falling to the Eagles, 41-33, and while making his way from his media availability period to the Patriots buses, McCourty said he and his teammates weren't surprised that Butler's workload had been scaled back for the final game of the season. 

His explanation made it difficult to understand, though, why other players were so surprised to see that Butler wasn't a part of the defensive game plan. The corner who started in Butler's place, Eric Rowe, said he didn't know until right before kickoff that he'd be on the field instead of Butler. 

MORE ON CORNERBACKS

McCourty reiterated his point when asked about the situation during a recent event to benefit Tackle Sickle Cell, founded by McCourty and his twin brother Jason to help families dealing with sickle cell disease.

"As far as I know, all of that is the furthest thing from the truth," McCourty told NJ Advance Media when asked if Butler's benching was disciplinary in nature. "We all knew he wasn't starting all week. That wasn't a secret to the guys on the team.

"I get why people are fishing. The guy played 98 percent of the plays. I just hate that for him character-wise going into free agency. It's just not true. As far as I know -- and I was there all week -- not one time did anything come up."

MORE PATRIOTS

Butler took to social media in the days following the loss to dispel any rumors that he was being punished by Belichick and the rest of the coaching staff. He pointed out that he had not attended any concerts during the week, as had been theorized online, and that he spent his free time with family. 

"It sucked for him," McCourty said. "He put a lot of time and effort in. However it falls, the last thing you want to do is not play a snap. To me, the worst part was to see all that (anonymous) stuff come out after."

McCourty called Butler a "great teammte" and appreciated the way Butler grew as a player during his four years in New England. 

"It's been great to watch him develop," McCourty said of Butler. "To watch him, maybe, be late one day his rookie year, and say, 'Hey Malc, you can't do that.' And then becoming a guy you can count on who is very dependable.

"If he decides it's hard to come back after that, anywhere he goes, the guy is a great football player and probably one of the most competitive people I've been around. With all my guys, we're teammates and friends for life."

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE