FOXBORO -- It was a sentiment borrowed from a different sport in a different century, but there were plenty of folks channeling former New York Knick Micheal Ray Richardson Sunday night with claims that the Patriots’ “ship be sinking.”
That’s a tad strong. And people tend to lose their collective minds and fall victim to hyperbole while the game’s unfolding.
But there is a leak below deck that -- despite a week spent tinkering and throwing one man overboard -- actually appears to have gotten worse.
The Patriots are lost on defense. Rudderless, to keep with the theme.
SEAHAWKS 31, PATRIOTS 24:
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In their 31-24 loss to Seattle, the Patriots defense allowed 17 completions of 10 or more yards. There were 10 plays of 15 or more yards, including the 20-yard pass interference on Justin Coleman. The Seahawks had completions of 14, 15, 18, 20 and 38 yards on third downs. Five of their six third-down conversions on the nights were chunk plays.
On its seven-play touchdown drive before the half, Seattle had completions of 14, 24 and 12 yards, capped by an 18-yard touchdown to Doug Baldwin when Baldwin scooted through the Patriots zone and was left naked and alone in the end zone for the score.
In the fourth quarter, after an line-drive kickoff to the dangerous Tyler Lockette that was lugged out to the Seattle 37, Russell Wilson had a 19-yard completion on first down, followed, two plays later, by a 38-yarder to C.J. Prosise on third-and-6 down to the Patriots 2.
The same things we’ve fingered before -- the passive scheme in which a three-man rush is liberally deployed with eight defenders dropping in zone, the lack of an elite pass-rusher that commands extra attention, the 1-on-1 beats that linebackers, corners and safeties are taking at the sticks -- but Sunday night featured a whole new issue. Players flat losing people. It happened on the aforementioned Baldwin touchdown and it seemed to happen on the 38-yarder down the middle. On Baldwin’s two other scores he beat man coverage -- Malcolm Butler first, Logan Ryan late.
Bill Belichick was more expansive than anticipated after the Patriots dropped to 7-2, though he wasn’t real specific.
“I think it’s everything,” he said. “You can’t turn the ball over. We had penalties . . . Defensively we made some stops in the red area but certainly missed a lot of opportunities to get off the field on third-down, gave up some big plays . . .
“There was a multitude of plays out there that had they been a little bit different they would’ve helped us in the overall result,” he later added. “I’ve got to coach us better. I’ve got to spend better time coaching, need better execution. We need to do a better job. There are 100 plays we could talk about. Part of that’s my responsibility, the coaching staffs responsibility, the players responsibility. It’s all of us so we’ve all just got to do a better job. Not that everybody’s not trying hard; it’s just nothing close to what it needed to be. It just needs to be a little bit better against a good team like Seattle. We’ve got to coach it better, we’ve got to execute it better, we’ve got to work at it harder.”
The question that’s not going away is why?
Do the Patriots play their relatively passive scheme because they don’t trust corners to cover 1-on-1? And is that decision made by Belichick or defensive coordinator Matt Patricia? Is Patricia shorthanded because the team unloaded two of its more talented defenders -- Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins -- in addition to releasing former first-rounder Dominique Easley and losing defensive tackle Akiem Hicks in free agency? Or is Patricia just not getting performance from the pretty competent players under his supervision?
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You watch as the game unfolds and the Patriots defense is on the field and Belichick is 20 yards away from Patricia and the defensive coaches as personnel is shuttled in and out and play-calls are made. Belichick’s in-game involvement with the defense is more hands-off than the perception.
The Patriots were permissive with Ryan Tannehill and Landry Jones and still got wins. The question was how they’d look against a top-tier quarterback. Wilson showed that they don’t look very good.
“They did an excellent job of trying to mix it up and trying to catch us off guard but our guys on offense, they studied really hard,” said Baldwin. “Give a lot of credit to our coaches for putting us in situations to be successful and then obviously the players executing at a high level to make it happen. But as far as their defense, again, they’re a good defense. I think they were second in [fewest points allowed in the NFL] and that’s for a reason. Whether it was man coverage or zone coverage, we just tried to go out there and execute what we knew.”
They executed against both. And, considering the very high level at which both teams can play, the Patriots got outflanked.
“The physical part of it I don’t really think has much of a weight anymore,” said Baldwin. “Everybody in this game is athletic, is an athletic freak, and has the athletic capability to play at a high level. But it’s that chess match you’re talking about that really takes it over the top. Tom Brady has been doing it for years and guys have been trying to follow his lead and the way he really picks apart defenses. Fortunately enough, our defense studies a lot of tape and our offense did the same thing to put us in the situation to be successful tonight.”
Russell Wilson picked the Patriots defense apart.
“We were in quite a bit of man coverage tonight,” Belichick offered. “I’d say we probably in the end tonight had more success playing zone than we did playing man. They did a good job, especially early in the game. They had some tough man-beater matchups, formations that they do a good job of that. Wilson made some great throws, some good catches, good receivers. They got us on a couple man-beaters, got us on some man routes. We were competitive on some and they got us on some.”
They sure did.
The Patriots second loss of the season isn’t going to sink their annual run to the postseason. But the way their defense played against the most potent offense its seen since opening night indicates that unless something gets better before that postseason, man the lifeboats.