It would be a waste of time to spend too much time breaking down all the players and units which struggled yesterday for the Patriots against Denver. There are so many of the players who played poorly, it really would become repetitive. Suffice to say, the Patriots limp into the bye at 3-3 follwing what was mostly a very ugly loss. While conventional wisdom has been that 3-3 wouldn’t really be a horrible place for the Patriots to be at this point, given the tough schedule they faced early on, its not really the record that is troubling. Its how really bad they have been on defense. No matter how much easier the schedule gets from here on out, they’re going to lose some of the games fans and observers have chalked up as wins unless there is a serious and immediate turn around in the performance of the defense.
Some of the blame for the performance of the defense so far has to be placed at the top on the coaches. Bill Belichick did not name an offensive coordinator this offseason to replace the departed Charlie Weis and, as strange as it sounds, that decision may have actually had a trickle down negative effect on the defense. The reasoning there is that, by keeping himself heavily involved in the offense, Belichick’s considerable knowledge and coaching ability on the defensive side of the ball isn’t being as effectively utilized as it could be.
Belichick decided in the offseason that the offensive coaching triumverate of Josh McDaniels, Brian Daboll and Dante Scarnecchia could not handle the offense on their own. While its true two of those coaches are younger and inexperienced, it appears Belichick miscalculated by being afraid of taking the training wheels off of them. The offense has been far better than the defense and from what one can tell of McDaniels and Daboll, there was plenty of reason to trust they could handle replacing Weis. It appears the coach who actually needed help and Belichick’s expertise was on the other side of the ball in new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini.
There has been little impressive about anything Mangini has done to date. The defense always seems to be one step behind the offenses. They’re beat repeatedly by the same or similar plays. Lineup changes have come too slow. There appears to be confusion on that unit at times. Mangini’s defensive play calls leave questions as well. In the offseason, Mangini was asked what were the differences, if any, between him and former coordinator Romeo Crennell. The one difference Mangini seemed to point to was he believed in being a bit more aggressive on defense at times.
Well, lets take a look at just the first long pass to Denver wide receiver Rod Smith yesterday. Early in the second quarter and leading 3-0, Mangini calls an all out blitz that left only four guys alone in coverage This was called on about the thirty on the Denver side of the field. The down and distance was 2nd and 5. Predictably, Denver picks it up and cornerback Duane Starks never stood a chance versus the veteran speedy receiver Smith. You can’t cover a guy one on one down the field like that all day. Nobody could. Result? A long pass inside the five and a touchdown shortly thereafter.
So why did Mangini call it? That isn’t Patriots football. That isn’t what’s brought them to three Super Bowl victories in four years. Crennell wouldn’t blitz there. He was patient. He made the offenses work. Take away the plays down the field. Make them dump it off. Make them go on drives of 10, 12 or 15 plays. Eventually they’ll screw up. Or fumble. Or get frustrated and throw it into coverage. Do not blitz the house on the road in the second quarter in a 3-0 game. Its simple. And the Patriots wonder why they’re not getting turnovers? Its hard to get turnovers when the opposing teams are regularly ripping off 50 yard gains.
When Crennell got the lead, that is when they’d blitz. Sure there were exceptions to this rule when a certain team didn’t handle the blitz well. An occasional well timed blitz when something opens up earlier is fine. But Crennell was patient. He’d sit in a zone or cover two all day and make the opposing quarterback pick you apart. Make you work. Then when it was third and long or midway through the fourth quarter and the opponent had to pass to make up a two score deficit, that’s when Crennell would attack. That is when he’d come after them. He knew they’d be passing then. It played into the Patriots hands. Even the great Peyton Manning couldn’t do anything but throw up his hands in frustration at that type of Crennell defense.
Its not all Mangini’s fault. The defensive line performance to date has been poor. The Patriots have 11 sacks through 6 games. That is not going to get it done. I’d prefer a return to the old philosophy. Maybe then the defensive linemen will know help isn’t coming on the rush. They will know its up to them to get it done. No blitzer is going to break free because no one else is coming. If Mangini wants to mix in an occasional linebacker blitz or even a safety up the middle, fine. But wait until third down or late in the game. Don’t be overly aggressive. He’s just leaving his defensive backs on islands out there and they’re getting killed. I’d also suggests its time Bill Belichick hands McDaniels and Daboll the keys on offense and comes to Mangini’s assistance on defense.
Its worth a note to say not everything was negative about yesterday. There were a couple positives. Patrick Pass continued his excellent play on offense and he has been a true inspiration this season. One wishes Amos Zereoue’s seven carries had gone Pass’ way yesterday, however, as it was apparent Pass was more up to the task running the ball. On defense, Dan Klecko came in in the second half and did a fine job. He even supplied some pressure. The Patriots spotted him at end rather than his normal position of nose tackle and he looked more comfortable there. Given his size limitations, this may finally be the spot he fits at best and he does have some quickness that could perhaps help in future games.
Mike Vrabel was tried out at inside linebacker and initial results looked positive, with Roosevelt Covin moving in at Vrabel’s spot outside. This change should be permanent. Chad Brown has simply shown beyond a shadow of a doubt he is no longer an every down player, particularly inside. Brown may still be able to an effective player in a spotted role, such as a third down backer in the mold of Roman Phifer last year. He has coverage and pass rush ability. But he can not play every down anymore. He can not play inside at all on first or second down and it was folly to even attempt to do so this year. If spotted here and there, Brown may start making plays as he is a talented guy. But his starting days should be over.
Monty Beisel at the other inside spot has not been great either. But he has been better than Brown. In general, he does a good job on most plays but the occasional whiff on a tackle makes him stick out to anyone watching. With Pro Bowler Tedy Bruschi coming back from an offseason mild stroke, it shouldn’t be long until Beisel is also in a reserve role and he may be above average as a reserve.
In the secondary, it would be helpful to move Randall Gay, who returned from injury yesterday, back into the starting lineup. With two weeks of preparation, newly signed veteran safety Arturo Freeman should be moved into the starting lineup as well. He is a solid player the Patriots were lucky to find available and who is still relatively young. He has started on some real good defenses in the past and has some playmaking ability. He’s not Rodney Harrison, but he’s a solid veteran alternative.
The final three positive notes about yesterday’s game were Asante Samuel seemed to rebound from his horrendous game against Atlanta. He was on the whole solid yesterday. Josh Miller continues his fine run of punting this year. He has had an excellent season. The final positive is GDRV was encouraged the Patriots did not quit. They did make a run in the game. They did play hard until the final whistle. One just wishes they had shown the intensity they showed from early in the third quarter on from the start of the game. This is really the third week in a row they’ve played half a game. Against San Diego they played an okay first half. Against Atlanta they played solid first and third quarters out of the locker room. And yesterday they played pretty well in the second half.
But one shouldn’t go overboard about the Patriots “glorious” comeback yesterday. Anyone who does is fooling themseleves in not seeing the true problems this team is displaying right now. The comeback was nice, but they had dug themselves too much of a hole from their horrid play at the start for it to matter. It was too little, too late. Additionally, it was somewhat dictated by Denver calling off the dogs and trying to just kill the game. Any thought this “comeback” will automatically carry over after the bye is off base. It won’t unless the Patriots carry over their preparation and effort on all levels, coaching and playing, when they start up again at home versus Buffalo in two weeks.