Yesterday it really was as bad as it looked for the Patriots. The Carolina loss a few weeks ago, in contrast, wasn’t the poor performance as many made it out to be. Really, the story of that game was turnovers and penalties, a problem the Patriots have had in early season games before, but have generally eliminated as the season went along. When one really looked at that game closely, there was the sense with some cleaning up of things and play they would be fine. They didn’t get tremendously out played in that game from a match up stand point. When they went on to beat Pittsburgh on the road the following week, it seemed the Pats were rapidly overcoming some of their early season mistakes and beginning to gel.
But this week’s game was different. San Diego was just better than the Patriots. And if they played again next week, San Diego would win again. Before we get to the Patriots and their problems, however, a word about San Diego. There is a tendancy among fans of the NFL to overlook the abilities and performances of the opponent and focus on their own team. That phenomenon exists just as surely among Patriot fans. But the simple fact is, there are other options as to why a team loses than they weren’t focused, or they were flat, or the offensive coordinator didn’t call the right plays, or the star quarterback was off his game. Fans forget the other teams can play a bit too. They have good players. They are all professionals. They are prepared and with a good plan many times. They can play the game. And sometimes they are just better. No more complicated than that. Its not that one team wanted it more. Or one team overlooked the opponent. One team was just better and won the game.
And that is what happened yesterday. San Diego is a very good team that came in on an offensive roll and executed perfectly. Additionally, Marty Schottenheimer as a coach is as well-suited to match up with Bill Belichick and his team as any coach in the league and its borne out by his winning record vs. Belichick, including 2-0 versus him since Belichick became New England’s coach. The reason for this is Schottenheimer teams are always physical, smash mouth teams that play solid defense and don’t make a lot of mistakes. Much like Bill Belichick teams. And both are excellent coaches. Both always have their teams as prepared as can be. But Schottenheimer is the type of coach and produces the types of teams that won’t back down from a Bill Belichick team. Teams that will continue to do what they want to do regardless of what is thrown at them and the type of physical running teams that have at times given the Patriots trouble off and on even during this tremendous five year run of success. And when you add in the mix a team with good players humming on all cylinders as San Diego was yesterday, well, you see what happens. And it will happen again with other good teams unless the Patriots can improve their level of play. Not their focus, or how much they “want it”, but simply how well they actually play the game. Because the level they played at yesterday simply won’t compete with teams like San Diego.
THE PATRIOTS ON OFFENSE
In thinking about the first four games of this season, the offense has not been the major problem with the Patriots so far. Sure, the turnovers and penalties have been major game killers, but they have tended in the past to clean those up as the season went along. Assuming they did clean that up this year as in past seasons, the offense has moved the ball fairly well for the most part up until the second half of yesterday’s game. And while there is some criticism of the offense that can be levied for yesterday’s second half performance, the far larger problem was simply one of opportunity. The Patriots barely had the ball in the second half. And they were largely out of their game plan by the time they did have the ball. There isn’t much to read into the performance really and in some ways the overall performance improved. Seventeen points in the first half was more than acceptable. Though it could be said it was a big disappointment they could not score a touchdown with three chances to do so from the six before the half. These eyes thought they had time to and should have mixed in one run there during that sequence as San Diego was clearly spread out expecting the pass. But in any event, its hard to complain about seventeen points or the first half performance of the offense. There was also some spark in the running game, though the game situation dictated they could not establish that in the second half, nor did they have much success in the limited second half chances they did get. There were again too many negative plays, as was a problem in the Carolina game. But they did largely eliminate penalties on offense and avoided turnovers until two meaningless late game interceptions when the game was out of reach. All in all, this game really can not be laid at the feet of the offense. Had they had the ball a bit more in the second half, one has to think they would have strung together at least a few good drives as they did in the first half and kept the game competitive. As stated last week, the I-formation seemed a bit missing from their arsenal and the Pats offense does seem a bit more physical running the ball out of that formation. But it wasn’t a major issue and they did improve a bit running out of one back sets. Individually, Patrick Pass had a good game, David Givens continued to be an excellent option at receiver and Nick Kaczur generally held his own for his first start.
THE PATRIOTS ON DEFENSE
This is where the game was lost. In thinking back over training camp and the first three games, perhaps there have been warning signs all along abut this unit that have been overlooked. A lot of the focus among fans and media seemed to be on the offense. There was worry about the loss of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, about who was calling the plays now or how many people, about whether the younger coaches could step up, about whether Corey Dillon was getting older and other such concerns. The defense has largely escaped such scrutiny. Sure, people lamented, rightfully so, the loss of Ted Bruschi and former defensive coordinator Romeo Crennell. But there seemed to be a sense the Patriots were a bit more stacked on defense, had many veterans and winners to compensate on that side and had the horses, including some new veterans they brought in this year, who could step in for those losses. Conventional wisdom also seemed to suggest there was less reason to worry about new Defensive Coordinator Eric Mangini because he had been around a bit longer than those coaches taking over on offense. He had been through more wars, knew the system better, had gained some experience calling the Defense in 2000 and was generally more proven.
But, so far, its been an exceedingly underwhelming performance from Mangini and, perhaps, its time for Belichick to change things up a bit. At least by way of offering Mangini some more help. One gets the impression from following the Patriots that Belichick has been a little bit more involved with the offense this year and not as involved in defense. Of course they aren’t saying and we don’t know this for sure, but it is a general sense you get. And its understandable given the younger, inexperienced coaches that largely are running the offense. There is also the general impression Belichick has left much of the defensive work to Mangini, who has been in this system and with Belichick for nearly a decade now. If that is the case, Belichick may want to consider giving the reigns a bit more to quarterback coach Josh McDaniel on offense as de facto coordinator and offering his own expertise to the area that is his true forte, defense. He may need to do that real soon before that side of the ball manages to sink the Patriots season.
Because its been the defense so far that has been the most un-Patriot-like so far. In fact, if you really look at it, its been downright bad with perhaps brief periods of good play. Now, surely the loss of Rodney Harrison to injury last week and the loss of linebacker Tedy Bruschi have been really crippling for this defense. That can not be denied. But it wasn’t Guss Scott, Harrison’s replacement at safety, who cost them the game yesterday. Nor would have they won if they had Harrison. That is just too easy. There were too many other bad performances all around. Tops on the list is the other safety, Eugene Wilson, who continued his thus far disappointing season with his worst performance as a Patriot. He had a much poorer game than the green Scott. The corner play from Duane Starks was just as bad as well. The Chargers largely stayed away from Asante Samuel on one side, but repeatedly torched Starks on the other when they weren’t busy torching Wilson over the middle or the linebackers in the flats.
In the trenches, it started out okay, forcing a three and out on San Diego’s first series that appeared to show the Patriots linemen dominating the San Diego linemen. On the edges, Willie McGinest made a nice play on two reverses early in the game and batted down another pass as well. But, overall, slowly San Diego began to impose their will on the Patriots to the point by the second half the Patriots had no answers whatsoever.
There have been some comments among the media and fans that yesterday’s performance was similar to some of the losses in 2002 when teams just ran it down the Patriots throat almost at will. I disagree. In 2002, two things happened. One, runners got out on the edge against an aging, slow Patriots defense, particularly in the secondary, such that you had a lot of jail break runs by runners. Really long, 30 plus yard runs happened frequently that season. The other thing is, teams literally could convert simply by running. In 2002, by the time they reached the last three games of the year versus Tennessee, the Jets and Miami, the Patriots were so exposed teams were running draws on 3rd and 7 and routinely converting.
That is not what happened yesterday. Chargers running back LaDanian Tomlinson’s longest run was 11 yards. And the Patriots did get the Chargers into multiple third down situations that were converted through throwing the ball. Tomlinson got his 134 yards, true enough. But at the moment he is far and away the best running back in the league. He is a truly outstanding player. He was going to get his yards against even the championship Patriots defenses of years past. And many of yesterday’s yards came late in the game when the Patriots defense had been worn down. And the reason they were worn down wasn’t so much their ineffective run defense, but because they had been on the field so long due to third down conversions that came off passing plays. One feeds into the other, third down conversions spawns weakened run defense. But the true root of the problem was the inability to stop San Diego from converting throwing the ball when they did get into those situations. That is where the worst breakdowns in the defense occurred. They simply could not get off the field. Had they been able to do that, there would have been better run defense in the second half than there was simply because the defense would have been fresher.
One place to put the blame on the conversion rate of San Diego is on the defensive line. They got virtually no pressure on Brees at all. To make matters worse, the linebackers had a horrible day in coverage. In the NFL, defenses simply can not let guys slip out of the backfield on 3rd and 5 and convert over and over again. Where was the chucking of the backs out of the backfield? Where was the shadowing of Tomlinson? Wasn’t there anything that could be done to change things up and get a guy in on Brees? Apparently not.
But again, give San Diego credit. Brees was flawless all day. Tomlinson knows how to find creases running the ball. San Diego’s receivers and tight ends made some excellent catches and knew how to get open. They played at a very high level, as they did their previous game versus the Giants, and flat outplayed the Patriots defense most of the day and out game planned them as well.
THE PATRIOTS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Probably the highlight of this game was the special teams play. Aside from the early missed field goal by Adam Vinatierri, the special teams had a generally good day. They got a long return from Bethel Johnson and other decent kick returns. One of the few punts the Patriots forced resulted in another good return from Tim Dwight. The coverage on San Diego returns seemed much improved. This was the most encouraging development of the day.
WHERE THE PATRIOTS GO FROM HERE?
Despite the drumbeat of the media, the Patriots are not done yet. As bad as they looked, as injured as they are, as much of a transition as they’re going through, they still have as much talent on the roster as any other team in the league, if not more than any other team. And eventually they’ll start to get some of it back. They’ll get back Matt Light and Kevin Faulk on offense eventually. They’ll get back Randall Gay and Tyrone Poole defensively. They may even get back Tedy Bruschi at some point.
But what they do face is a ticking clock. A lot of the Patriots problems can be traced to system or continuity issues. Whether its Monty Beisel and Chad Brown adjusting to the defense at linebacker or Duane Starks and the rest of the new people in the secondary adjusting to the defense and to each other, it can be corrected. These players are talented. And the new coaches and coaches in new roles are talented too. But there is much newness here in all areas, offense, defense, special teams and coaching. And it takes time. Unfortunately for them, however, they don’t have a ton of time. The NFL season comes and goes quickly and there is no guarantee the Patriots will mesh together in time, with all the changes and set backs they’ve had, to make a playoff run. At the beginning of the season, an analysis of the Patriots schedule suggested if they could get to 3-3, they had the talent, experience and coaching to then go on one of their typical runs by winning 9 out of their last 10 or something similar. That may have to be adjusted to if they can get to 6-6 or 7-5, they can take the division over the last four. If they can do that, they still have the core of championship players. They still have Bill Belichick. They still have Tom Brady. That gives them a puncher’s chance no matter what else they’re missing. The question is, can they get to 3-3 or 6-6 with the clock ticking? No doubt the Patriots will improve as the season goes along. The new coordinators will get more comfortable. Chad Scott, Guss Scott, Monty Beisel, Nick Kaczur, Starks and the rest of the additions will find their way better. But will it be enough? The good teams will improve too. The good teams always play their best in late November and December. Not on October 2nd. History suggests the Patriots will do it. They’ll get on one of their runs. They’ll pull it together. They’ll once again defy the critics. Too many people have doubted them before and been wrong to think their downfall is a sure thing. But if they do overcome, if they do make a run, it may end up being their biggest accomplishment yet because right now they are far from that great team that raised its third trophy in four years last February.