Phil Perry's Report Card: Defense fails to make the grade vs. Seahawks
'We're trying everything we can'
Bill Belichick's interractions with reporters aren't limited to responses like "on to Cincinnati" or "Seattle." He can be expansive at times, revealing his thought process in certain situations, or shedding light on his coaching techniques. In other scenarios, he can be brief but reveal just as much as he does in those lengthy conversations.
In a conference call on Monday, he was asked several times about his defense, which allowed 31 points in a loss to the Seahawks the night before. Each question on the subject was met with brevity. But when he was asked what the defense could do to make things better -- how could they create more turnovers, how could they be more aggressive -- he provided some insight.
"I mean, look," he said, "we’re trying to do everything we can in all of those situations that you just brought up. We try to play as competitively as we can."
And that may be the issue. Though Belichick's pass-rush has not yielded much in the way of frazzled quarterback play, it's not because he wants his defense front to leave opposing passers alone. When coverage players let opposing receivers run clean through their secondary, it's not because he's apathetic about the timing of their routes.
They're trying. The success of their defense doesn't hinge on the hope that a quarterback will screw up, though it looked that way at times on Sunday night. Unfortunately for them, they faced a good one, and he rarely did.
Because the defense has come so squarely into focus, we'll change things up on this week's Report Card, taking a look at that unit before moving on to the offense.
Belichick made it clear after the game that he believed his team had more issues in man coverage than they did in zone. But there were breakdowns regardless of the scheme. Corners and linebackers were beaten in their one-on-one assignments, and large holes opened up in the secondary when communication between defensive backs broke down in zone. Belichick felt like his pass-rush featured "free guys running at the quarterback" relatively frequently, but whatever rush they put on Russell Wilson provided little in the way of positive momentum as he finished 25-for-37 with 348 yards passing, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Wilson did not hurt the Patriots as a ball-carrier (three carries, six yards), but he did damage with his feet, extending plays and finding receivers down the field for long gains. One interesting note: The Patriots compared Wilson to Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor in their meetings leading up to the game. Like Taylor, Wilson is someone who you'd rather keep in the pocket because extended plays lead to explosive gains. But unlike Taylor, Wilson's mistakes from "in the well" are few and far between; he's 10th in the league in completion percentage while Taylor is 25th. When it came to keeping Wilson behind center, it was "damned if you do, damned if you don't." Their inability to force him to both remain stationary yet also quicken his decision-making process led to a long night.
DEFENSIVE LINE: C-
Through the first half, the Patriots allowed a team that was averaging just 3.2 yards per carry on the season to average 5.2 per carry. That falls largely on a defensive line unit that was matched up with an inexperienced and unimpressive Seahawks offensive line. Though Malcom Brown picked up a half sack, he and Alan Branch were heard from very little over the course of the evening. Seattle's yards-per-carry number was down to 3.7 by game's end, but for whatever improvements they made against the run in the second half, they were not able to provide as much resistence against the pass. Second-round defensive end Trey Flowers continued to show good effort up front, picking up a pair of sacks and recording one run stuff. Rob Ninkovich had his best game of the season since returning off of a four-game suspension, picking up four quarterback pressures one sack (his first of the season), one quarterback hit and one stuff. Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard, however, were conspicuously quiet. Long played 37 snaps but did not record a tackle, and he was in underneath coverage on tight Jimmy Graham -- a questionable scheme call -- when Wilson found Graham for a critical third-down coversion at the end of the half. Sheard on the other hand, barely saw the field. He played one snap in the first quarter, and he saw just four plays in the second half, finishing with 16 snaps total. He was mum on his usage after the game, but his inability to earn more playing time was a head-scratcher. In a contract year, without any apparent injury, and as the team's most physically capable end, he should have played a bigger role. When he was used, he was easily wiped out of running plays to his side on two separate occasions. There may not be big money on the free-agent market for edge-setters, but that's what's expected of ends in the Patriots defense.
Bumps in the road without Jamie Collins should have been expected. Hard to part ways with a player who saw 90 percent of the team's defensive snaps and then move on as though nothing happened. On Sunday, the Seahawks had no fear of going at rookie Elandon Roberts, who saw almost the entirety of the work in Collins' absence. He did not produce much in the way of highlight-reel hits, which had come on an almost weekly basis since seeing his first significant action in Week 5, and he was beaten for a 38-yard catch by CJ Prosise -- his only target in coverage. Roberts did come up with a goal-line stuff soon after allowing the long completion, but this was a down day for the rookie who impressed his coaches enough to make the Collins deal a possibility. Shea McClellin saw work in obvious passing situations, but he was beaten -- tripping over himself -- during an 18-yard Prosise catch-and-run. Hightower was his usual solid self, but he picked up a penalty in coverage and dropped what would have been an impressive pick. There was little in the way of a pass-rush from this group -- Roberts and McClellin each had quarterback hits and Hightower had one pressure -- which was one of Collins' strengths. Barkevious Mingo saw no time defensively and Kyle Van Noy was inactive, an indication of where the trust level is with those players at the moment even after a bye week to catch up.
Communication in the secondary against a quarterback like Wilson is no easy task. Verbal cues can't be counted on since the noise in the stadium -- regardless of what Pete Carroll says -- can make that difficult. Hand signals are useful, but oftentimes the game moves too quickly for those to be read. As a result, all players in the secondary need to be on the same page before every snap, understanding what could happen if the play breaks down. The times when Patriots defenders lost track of Seahawks receivers in those scramble situations is an indication that they were not in sync. Given their experience together, that may come as somewhat of a concern. For instance, on the Doug Baldwin touchdown just before the end of the first half, Logan Ryan started the play on Baldwin, and as time elapsed, he appeared to pass Baldwin off to an area on the opposite side of the field. Patrick Chung was nearby, but not deep enough to see Baldwin, and the result was an easy score. Other times, communication didn't seem to be the factor but execution. Lengthy drops into zones, like on the same drive when Malcolm Butler fell back to guard the goal line and allowed Tyler Lockett to pick up a 24-yard gain, were an issue as well. Ryan was targeted early and often by the Seahawks, allowing six catches on 11 throws for 101 yards and a touchdown. The No. 2 corner spot for the Patriots seems to be very much up for grabs as no one will claim it: Justin Coleman had a difficult day, allowing two grabs for 37 yards and picking up a pass interference penalty; Cyrus Jones was active but saw time strictly as a returner (fumbling once); and Eric Rowe, who had started for two games, found himself inactive and watching from the press level.
In the immediate aftermath, the focus was on the final few Patriots offensive play-calls, and while it shouldn't be perceived as the only reason the team dropped its second game of the season, it deserves closer scrutiny. The Patriots preach situational football, and they practice red-zone and goal-line attempts with great regularity to ensure that they're prepared for those key moments. Their approach at the end of the game, though, was faulty. They wanted to burn some clock with their first quarterback sneak, but they did so at the expense of a scoring opportunity. Tom Brady's fumbled snap botched the sequence, and the execution of the fourth-down play -- Gronkowski's route and the timing on Brady's throw -- wasn't perfect. It wasn't the reason they lost the game, but it was indicative of some of the sloppiness that plagued the Patriots offense over the course of the night.
Brady put them in position to have a chance to tie a game that probably should have been out of reach in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. His touch throws to Edelman at the end of the third quarter and Gronkowski at the end of the fourth were more of the same from one of the better deep-ball throwers in the NFL this season. He also was on-point with his back-shoulder throws to Martellus Bennett, who had a big game after Gronkowski seemingly had his organs rearranged due to a hit by safety Earl Thomas. Those long-distance calls weren't all answered, though. His poor throw to Malcolm Mitchell led to his first pick of the season, and he and Chris Hogan were clearly not on the same wave-length on two separate occasions, which led to mini Brady tantrums. He showed toughness, taking a low hit from safety Kam Chancellor but staying in the game and leading the team to a 10-play, 91-yard scoring drive, and he had his team in a position to go to overtime. But, due in part to Seattle's ball-hawking defense, he wasn't his typically razor-sharp self.
RUNNING BACK: B
LeGarrette Blount continues to have a nose for the goal-line, and on his second-quarter one-yard touchdown, he bowled through four defenders on his own to get there. He had three scores in all on the night, but as a group, there was almost nowhere to run. They averaged 2.9 yards per carry on 28 attempts. The assumption was that James White -- with Dion Lewis inactive -- would have a significant role in the passing game, as Shane Vereen did against the same scheme in Super Bowl XLIX, but White finished with just four catches for 32 yards.
TIGHT END: B+
That Gronkowski was still the team's go-to option with an injured lung -- likely a result of the hit from Thomas -- speaks to just how much faith they have in the 6-foot-6, 265-pounder. He finished with three catches for 56 yards. Though he clearly wasn't feeling like himself following the collision, the Patriots made use of their other athletic specimen at the position. Bennett came through with seven grabs for 102 yards and showed good chemistry with Brady on timing patterns near the sideline. Fullback James Develin, who we lump in with this group because he meets with them on a daily basis, had his best game of the year, winning his one-on-one matchups and clearing space for Blount on multiple occasions.
Like White, it was expected Edelman -- who was targeted 12 times in the Super Bowl against Seattle -- would play a bigger role on Sunday night. He had just two catches for 11 yards through the first half but was involved more as the game wore on (seven catches total for 99 yards). Edelman saw Richard Sherman in coverage at times, and Brady wisely looked for other options. Edelman's fumble in the fourth quarter was a killer. Other wideouts had little-to-no impact in the game. Hogan, who was dealing with a back injury, didn't factor into the stat sheet. Danny Amendola and Malcolm Mitchell had one grab each.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C+
Dante Scarnecchia's unit's inability to gain traction in the running game made life difficult, but they did a solid job in protection with Seattle's top pass-rusher Michael Bennett sidelined. Belichick credited Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon with their performances on the right side, though they combined to share responsibility for a sack. Cannon was also the responsible party for allowing Chancellor a free shot at Brady's knee. Nate Solder allowed a sack (which was more of an impressive play by Frank Clark than a miscue on his part) and two hits. Thuney allowed one hit and drew one penalty. It wasn't a perfect showing -- the final goal-line push was failed -- but Brady's protection wasn't the reason for their loss.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-
Stephen Gostkowski continued his perfect stretch of kicks made, but he made a costly error by sending his first kickoff out of bounds. The Seahawks were given good field position to start and finished the drive with a field goal. Jones continues to have ball-handling issues as he fumbled a kick in the fourth quarter. Fortunately for him, Nate Ebner -- one of the team's best in the kicking game this year -- was Johnny on the Spot with the recovery. McClellin's blocked extra point bumps this grade into the 'B' range.