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.” 


Patriots sign Sony Michel to rookie contract

Patriots sign Sony Michel to rookie contract

First round running back Sony Michel officially signed his rookie contract with the New England Patriots Sunday. 

The 31st overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft will receive the standard rookie deal for first round picks, which is four years with a team option for a fifth season. 

Michel will join James White, Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee and newcomer Jeremy Hill in the New England backfield. 

The Patriots begin training camp on Thursday, July 26th, but rookies report today, so Michel signed his deal just in time to attend his first camp as an NFL running back. 


Signature Plays: Gronk presence felt on flat-corner combo

NBC Sports Boston Illustration

Signature Plays: Gronk presence felt on flat-corner combo

We've already taken a look at a handful of go-to offensive concepts for the Patriots. There was the two-back stretch, the smash route, the post-wheel, the high-low crosser and the slip screen. Today, we'll focus on yet another key offensive play, one that works thanks to the physical gifts of their players. 

It's no secret: The Patriots offense benefits in a big way by being able to trot out arguably the greatest tight end in the history of the sport.

We illustrated Rob Gronkowski's importance to the operation when he attracted coverage in the Super Bowl, which helped to allow one of his teammates to score a touchdown. Yes, sometimes just having Gronkowski on one side of the field or another is enough to garner a defense's attention create a fatal opening.

Gronkowski's coaches know that. They know that even though he's a walking mismatch. If a defense overextends to stop him, they'll be opened up to damage elsewhere. 

That's exactly what happened in Week 11 last season, when the Patriots took on the Raiders in Mexico. The game was scoreless late in the first quarter until Josh McDaniels dialed up a route combination that used Oakland's respect for Gronkowski against them. 


THE CONCEPT: The flat-corner combination is one that works particularly well against certain types of zone coverages. In our example from the Raiders game, it appeared as though Oakland was in quarters coverage or Cover-4, with four defenders sharing the responsibilities of defending the deep portion of the field. But this would work against Cover-2 as well. The goal is to get a shifty running back into space, one-on-one with a slower linebacker underneath. When the talented inside receiver (in this case Gronkowski) runs his corner route, the cornerback goes with him, and the safety on his side of the field has to respect that Gronkowski's route could be a post. The result is oodles of open space on that side of the field for a back who thrives there.

THE PLAY: In the NFL's Mexico City showdown, the Patriots scored their first touchdown by goading the Raiders into paying attention to Gronkowski. Starting him in-line and sending him on a corner occupied both the middle safety and the outside corner. When Dion Lewis took off out of the backfield, he knew he had a juicy matchup. He darted into the flat, caught Tom Brady's pass, and cut back to the middle of the field. The linebacker chasing in pursuit was left hugging grass. Lewis finished the run hard, splitting two potential tackles to get into the end zone and open up the scoring in the game. On the opposite side of the field, the Patriots ran Brandin Cooks on a crossing route, Dwayne Allen on a corner to the opposite side of the field, and Danny Amendola ran a return route over the middle. 

THE PLAY IN 2018: This type of play is part of what makes Gronkowski so valuable. The fact that he's as good as he is earns him attention, and when the Patriots can use that attention to their advantage they do. Of course, they like Gronkowski for much more than his work as a decoy...but he's a good one. Especially when Gronkowski can open up space for a back with the agility to make the first tackler miss, this flat-corner combo is almost guaranteed to succeed against certain defenses. With Lewis gone, the Patriots might not have quite the same level of make-you-miss talent in their running back room, but James White, Rex Burkhead and Sony Michel could all potentially find themselves involved in this route combination, trying to embarrass a linebacker one-on-one. On the three-receiver side, the Patriots could use any combination of pass-catchers. Having Phillip Dorsett run the crosser, with Kenny Britt running the corner and Jordan Matthews on the return would give Brady some interesting options if things broke down on the flat-corner side.