INDIANAPOLIS -- It’s not the same as diagnosing a safety blitz. Or tackling Jonathan Taylor in the open field. Or blocking a punt rush. But dealing with success is its own type of challenge in the NFL.
The Patriots found that out on Saturday night.
They hadn’t necessarily been reading their "press clippings" prior to their 27-17 loss to the Colts, longtime captain Matthew Slater said. But it’s only natural to feel as though you have some things figured out when you find yourself on a seven-game winning streak, he explained.
The Patriots looked like a team with plenty still left to solve after a mistake-laden performance at Lucas Oil Stadium that was the antithesis of the smart "situational football" and complementary play that characterized their unbeaten stretch.
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They racked up eight penalties for 50 yards. Two separate drives were submarined by flags on back-to-back plays. They had two false starts in the red zone. An offside penalty wiped out a missed Indy field goal, allowing the Colts to pick up three points on the re-kick.
The Patriots, you’ll remember, also had a punt blocked and recovered for a touchdown. Mac Jones threw two interceptions. They allowed a 78-yard touchdown drive that featured zero Colts throws. They gave up a 67-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter when stopping the run was the only way for them to give themselves a sliver of a chance late.
“I hope that’s not us," Slater said. “I don’t believe that that’s us. I think we’ve shown that we can be much better than we were tonight. I think as you begin to have success, there’s a tendency sometimes to start to read your own press clippings. Not to say that we did that. But I think (it’s) human nature to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got this thing figured out.’
“I think this is a good wake-up call for us. Like I said to those guys, we gotta keep the main thing the main thing. The main thing is us having success and winning games and playing well.
“Doesn’t matter what you guys write about us. Doesn’t matter what people think or say about us. Doesn’t matter what people think our say about individuals on our team. It’s about our team playing well when our best is needed. I certainly hope we respond the right way moving forward.”
Let’s get to the grades ...
Mac Jones really hadn’t had a can’t-overcome-it, rookie-gaffe-riddled performance this season. He wasn’t the reason they lost to Miami, Tampa Bay or Dallas. He threw three picks against the Saints, but one was a pick-six off the hands of tight end Jonnu Smith and one was a last-ditch heave late in the game down multiple scores. Not his loss to shoulder, really.
Saturday was a first. The mistakes certainly weren’t limited to him -- as we’ll see with the rest of the grades, it's hard to win when you’ve allowed a special teams score -- but his two picks were back-breakers.
The first, to Darius Leonard inside the Colts five-yard line, wiped points off the board late in the first half when the Patriots were desperate for a few. The second, a late and inaccurate throw to the sideline picked off by Bobby Okereke, got the second half off to a suboptimal start.
The crowd noise appeared to be an issue for the rookie, too. He picked up a delay of game penalty, and communication along the line of scrimmage seemed stressed throughout the night. His receivers were, at times, on the wrong end of big-time collisions -- which a certain quarterback will tell you is the responsibility of the guy chucking it -- and contested targets down the seam to Smith flirted with a couple more.
Jones rebounded eventually, showing some resiliency in the fourth quarter. He handled a few blitzes well, sensing the direction of Indy’s pressure and getting the ball out quickly. He threw some dimes, including two down the field to Jakobi Meyers and Nelson Agholor that weren’t caught. His late bomb down the middle gave N’Keal Harry a chance to make a play, and his touchdown pass to Hunter Henry -- placed perfectly under duress -- was excellent.
But Jones turned it over on a night when he couldn’t. He wasn’t the lone reason for the loss, but he could’ve bailed out his team by erasing his worst plays. Instead, the Patriots fell for the first time in two months.
Running back: C
Credit the Colts. They did what they said they were going to do. With Damien Harris (hamstring) out, Rhamondre Stevenson and Brandon Bolden shared the load here and were held to 2.8 yards per carry. They added four catches for 44 yards (Bolden had three for 41) to help their overall production.
The reason this grade isn’t lower is because there were plays blown up in the backfield by blown assignments or runs into bad looks. Not much this position group could’ve done to make the night a more palatable one.
Wide receiver: D
Jakobi Meyers' third-down drop deep down the left sideline early in the game was one of the turning points in the game. A catch would’ve resulted in the Patriots sniffing points after one of Jones' best throws of the season. Instead, the incompletion led to a punt. It was blocked. You know what happened from there.
This group -- aside from a handful of nice catches by Nelson Agholor and a deep shot to Harry -- struggled.
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Kendrick Bourne was flagged for a block in the back to negate a big run. Meyers was hit with a holding call that wiped out a run to put the Patriots on the goal line. And it looked like either Meyers or Bourne missed a block on Darius Leonard, a player who should be at the top of any list of offensive assignments in general, on a third down negative run that led to a punt.
Tight end: C-
Henry remains sure-handed as ever with two touchdown grabs and an explosive gain over the middle on a crossing route that has become a bread-and-butter concept for the Patriots. But he appeared slow to get his head around on a fourth-and-one incompletion for Jones.
Smith, meanwhile, had a tough day. He continues to appear to have trouble tracking the ball down the field and seemed to jump early on a risky seam pass sent his way by Jones. His missed block on an end-around play from Bourne led to a stuffed run, and he nearly got another run stuffed by Stevenson made a tackler miss in the backfield.
Smith also had a false start penalty deep in the red zone that was followed a couple plays later by Leonard’s pick.
Offensive line: D
Jones was hit five times and eluded a handful of other potential thumps by stepping up in the pocket and extending plays. Some of Indy’s pressures were created by blitzes from the second level that weren’t always accounted for -- whether by this group, the backs or Jones himself.
This group was flagged for an illegal downfield penalty on the first Patriots drive, but they won’t be docked here for that one as it seemed the timing of the play was screwy and Jones should’ve had the ball out more quickly.
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But later on that drive, Isaiah Wynn was beaten cleanly on third down. On the next drive Wynn peeled back in the direction of his own goal line and bumped into his own running back to help snuff out a play. Later, Wynn was flagged for a false start deep in Indy territory. Rough night.
The toughest penalty on this group though was probably a false start on sixth lineman Mike Onwenu midway through the fourth quarter. He turned a third-and-two into a third-and-seven. Following an incompletion, Bill Belichick opted to kick a field goal instead of going for a touchdown in one of the critical calls of the night.
Couple all the pass game miscues and penalties with a run game that averaged just 3.8 yards per designed carry, and this was a night to forget.
Special teams: F
Slater said after the game that the Colts' blocked punt didn’t appear to be a scheme breakdown. More of a technique issue. Bill Belichick reinforced the point later saying, “We didn’t block the guy."
Jakob Johnson, who has been extremely valuable to the Patriots offensively this year, will likely have to wear this one. The Colts didn’t overload the line or deploy anything exotic. The Patriots just got beat. And it changed the game.
Defensive line: D
Deatrich Wise came up with a sack and this group had a handful of run stuffs at or near the line of scrimmage. That’s what keeps this grade from falling any further. But to give up well over 200 yards (226, 5.8 per carry) on the ground for the second time in three games has to be alarming for this team.
It’s not as though they like to play with light personnel and are willing to sacrifice gains on the ground to prevent progress through the air. Just like against Tennessee three weeks ago, the Colts really couldn’t throw the football. The Patriots played their big bodies -- Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy and Christian Barmore all played over 60 percent of the snaps -- and still got hammered on the ground.
The long touchdown run by Jonathan Taylor to finish off the Patriots looked like a breakdown between Devin McCourty and Dont’a Hightower, and McCourty acknowledged after that they could’ve done more. But had Barmore held his ground better, the hole would not have been so wide, and Taylor might not have been able to elude Hightower’s grasp the way he did.
Hard to go much higher than this when the run defense looked the way it did. The 78-yard drive on the second Colts series of the game was remarkable in that it didn’t feature a single overhand throw. (The touchdown -- what Frank Reich called a variation of the "Philly Special" -- was technically a pass, but in essence it was a run.) That seemed to be a statement from Indy: Think you’re the only team that can punish defenses with an old-school attack?
Jamie Collins, who played a season-high 37 snaps with Ja’Whaun Bentley out for most of the game with an ankle injury, had two pass deflections. One of those was picked off by Devin McCourty and helped keep the Patriots in the game for as long as they were.
This loss isn’t on this group. Could it have played some of those runs -- in particular a long end-around gain on the second drive of the game that was headed right at Jalen Mills -- a little more soundly? Yes. But even on the long Taylor touchdown run, it looked like McCourty got picked by his own man preventing him from making that play.
Their work against the passing game, particularly on a night when Wentz was hit just one time, was very good. Wentz helped make their job easier with inaccurate throws and bad decisions. But McCourty came up with a pick, J.C. Jackson had three more breakups, and they held Wentz to just five completions on 12 attempts and 4.8 yards per pass