In thinking back over the incredible run the Patriots put together between September of 2001 thru February of 2005, the details can sometimes run together. But the overall image remains fresh. And what the football watching public will remember about that incredible team that won three of four championships, set an NFL record for consecutive wins, dominated at home and did it as a team is that they were tough, smart, physical, and a clutch team that almost always played together as a complete unit. This season, none of that has come together for the Patriots. Individual units may have played well at times, individual players have had good games, but rarely has there been complete performances. Rarely has the whole team been functioning well together for an entire game.
The thing that sticks out about those four years were the occasional challenges they’d face from opponents in one facet of the game, but opponents who couldn’t quite get every unit working well enough all at once so that they could truly challenge the Patriots. One remembers the 2001 game versus Indianapolis, the second matchup in Indianapolis. The Colts rang up 484 yards in offense that day. But they lost 38-17 because their defense was shredded by the Patriots for long scoring strike after long scoring strike. One remembers the game performance by the Miami defense in 2003 on a wintry, snow filled day at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, bravely keeping the game a 3-0 match into the 4th quarter. Miami’s defense held their own that day, only to watch the offense blow the excellent performance by throwing an interception for a touchdown to Tedy Bruschi late and surrendering a safety shortly after that in a 12-0 loss. One remembers the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh at the end of the 2001 season in which the Patriots special teams scored two touchdowns to help them advance to the Super Bowl over the Steelers in an otherwise fairly even matchup.
The Patriots could beat you many different ways. If any one unit of the opponent let down, the Patriots could exploit it, no matter how up to the task the foe otherwise was. Any team who didn’t match up in any one phase of the game was at risk of being exploited. And the Patriots did it to other teams over and over. Time and time again.
The problem with the 2005 Patriots team is they have become one of those other teams. At times the offense is effective. At times they disappear for quarters or halves at a time. At times the special teams have made some good plays and ripped off some good returns. And other games they have done nothing worthy of mention at all. And most disturbing of all, the defense has had virtually no entire games where they functioned well the entire time. The best one can really say about this unit is individual players have played well in spurts at times, though some haven’t had any spurts. At no time has this unit really played well for an extended period of time all at once this year.
And when any team functioning this way gets in games against good opponents clicking at a high level, like the Chargers, or the Panthers, or the Broncos, or the Colts those opponents are going to find those inconsistencies and exploit them. It doesn’t matter if one unit plays acceptably. It doesn’t matter if some players do their job and others don’t. Those good teams will find the jugular and they’ll end any life that opponent has most of the time. Just like the Patriots used to do. And just like happened to them last night and has happened to them repeatedly against good competition this year.
It wasn’t all negative. The offense played well at times. The first scoring drive was certainly impressive. Quarterback Tom Brady was his usual effective self. One wonders just how bad this team could be, in fact, if Brady hadn’t been around this year as he appears to single-handedly carry them at times.
The receivers played decently and had some good catches and runs. The tight ends had some moments, good and bad. The touchdown run down the south sideline by Daniel Graham was electrifying and yet another reminder of the great speed/size combination he has. It truly must be shiver inducing to defenders to see that sized a guy running with that determination and at that speed in open space once Graham gets up a head of steam. Once he did, there was no defensive back that was going to bring him down prior to the end zone.
The offensive line, for the most part, held up well for the Patriots. The main complaint about the offense has been one of consistency. But overall, they are far less of a problem than the defense. They did put 21 points on the board. They did it with limited opportunities. They threw the ball pretty well, Brady was 10 for 10 in the first half. But they struggled running. Banged up running back Corey Dillon did not appear to be his old self or even the reasonable facsimile that had played well the week before against Buffalo. The problem is, while they went on long scoring strikes relatively quickly three times, they didn’t sustain any drives which really worked the clock much. One wonders if they HAD had the lead, could have this offense put away the game grinding the clock as they used to do? Doubts remain.
The Patriots do move the ball when they wing it all around, but they haven’t had to kill a game with a lead for a long time. The old Patriots ALWAYS seemed to have the lead. Always, with only rare exceptions. Most of the time, they were killing clock in the fourth quarter and had no trouble doing it. This year, you’d have to go back to opening night for a time they were on any semblance of cruise control. Their other three wins were last minute scramble jobs. If the schedule truly does get any easier for New England, if they are going to win the division and play with leads, the offense is going to have to prove they can move down the field some other way than spreading it out and firing the ball all around the lot. They have yet to really do that this year.
On defense, things get really ugly for the Patriots. The Colts just dominated the Patriots defense. GDRV would call them a shell of their former selves, but we fear that would be unfair to shells. They are barely an NFL defense right now.
A few guys here and there have held up their end of the bargain. Linebacker Mike Vrabel has mostly been good this year. Roosevelt Colvin has played well, particularly of late. Other guys have been spotty, good at times, bad other times, Willie McGinest, Vince Wilfork, Asante Samuel, Eugene Wilson. Some guys have just been invisible. Its hard to remember them doing anything this year at all, good or bad, Ty Warren for example. Has he made a tackle this year? Obviously he has, but none seemed significant. Jarvis Green? Mostly invisible. Marquise Hill? When is he going to show his second round promise? Then the third category is guys who have mostly been horrible this year. At the top of the list is cornerback Duane Starks. Linebacker Chad Brown isn’t far behind. Virtually everyone they have plugged in at safety for Rodney Harrison since he was injured is in that category.
And when you take all that and match it up with the Colts, probably the premier offense in football, you get the disasterous results you had last night. You have a team in the Patriots that didn’t force a punt until there were 77 seconds left. You get a team that allows the opponent to convert third down after third down. You get a team that lets its opponents hit pass after pass well downfield.
So who to blame for the absolute atrocious display of defense we have seen? Its probably a combination of things. Injuries have hurt, no doubt. Instability of the lineup has hurt. Offseason losses hurt. Strong opponents have been an issue. And coaching losses have hurt.
That last issue needs to be examined more thoroughly. Indianapolis was held to thirteen points by the Cleveland Browns in Indianapolis forty-three days before yesterday’s game. Six weeks ago. In Indianapolis. They held the Colts to 228 yards passing. They held them to 3.4 yards per rush. They only allowed one touchdown. Cleveland is coached by former Patriots Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennell who three games before he left the Patriots helped coach the Patriots defense to a brilliant performance against almost the exact same Colts offensive unit in which the Colts were held to three points in the playoffs.
Taking over for Crennell is new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini. GDRV’s main issue yesterday with Mangini was a lack of changes in the defensive plan as the game wore on when it was clear the initial plan was not working. Yes, its true, the Patriots plan of a zone based defense with a four man rush had worked in the past against the Colts (though GDRV seems to remember more bumping off the line of receivers within that scheme in the past). Yes, its true it is difficult to blitz Peyton Manning and he’s only been sacked five times all year. But at some point yesterday, whether it was when the Patriots were down 28-7 or 31-14 or 34-21 or whatever, they had to take some chances on defense because what they were doing just wasn’t working.
Yet no changes were apparent. If the Patriots blitzed at all, it was under five times. If they bumped off the line, it wasn’t often. If they played any man to man at all, it was a handful of times at most. If they tried anything at all to create some pressure other than just strictly rushing 3 or 4 guys, it was a significant exception. Its true GDRV has felt prior to this game Mangini sent too many blitzes. He left his defensive backs too alone in coverage. And the blitzes he called didn’t seem to catch any opponent off guard. Rarely has a Patriot defender broke in free on the opposing offense this year.
This game, Mangini went in the complete opposite direction. He was too passive. He tried nothing. He changed nothing up when they were behind. He left his corners too far off the line. It was like taking candy from a baby for the Colts all night long. It was death by a thousand paper cuts. The Colts looked like they toyed with the Patriots defense all night, literally. It was appalling. Any cliche along these lines seems to fit.
Mangini simply has to find a better mix. He has to mix the conservative, zone based defenses (which incidentally fits with GDRV’s general philosophy on defensive football) with occasional aggressiveness. He has to give opponents more looks. He has to pick and choose his timing better. He has to find a way to keep opponents off balance more often. He must make his lineup decisions on who is going to play better. Its been like a revolving door out there.
One game Chad Brown is starting at linebacker in the middle, next thing you know he’s benched for nine quarters in a row before finally reappearing at outside linebacker late yesterday. One day Monty Beisel is a regular in the defensive rotation, next thing you know he’s benched. One minute Duane Starks is your starting corner, next thing you know he’s benched at halftime and on the verge of being cut. One minute Randall Gay is a safety, they go in the locker room, he comes out playing corner. One minute Anturo Freeman is your starting safety playing a full game in a win (weeks after being signed off the street), a few days later he is out the door back on the street. One minute Dan Klecko is playing a lot of downs, the next game he’s a healthy scratch. One minute Mike Vrabel is practicing inside linebacker in camp. Then he’s back outside when the season starts. Later you come out of halftime one game and he’s back inside again six weeks after camp ends when he last worked there. GDRV realizes Mangini has faced injuries and bad play and is trying to find a combo that works. But at some point you just got to settle on your guys and give them the chance to improve rather than being bounced around like rag dolls every 2 quarters.
Head Coach Bill Belichick, GDRV is crying out for, needs to get more involved in the defense. Obviously, the inner workings of how things are handled specifically with the defense the public doesn’t know. But the impression one gets is Belichick has left the actual game calling and freedom with the defense to Mangini. GDRV recalls Belichcik being asked about his relationship with Dallas coach Bill Parcells when the two teams met up in 2003. As everyone recalls, Belichick made his bones in the NFL as a defensive coordinator under Parcells with the New York Giants in the 1980’s. When asked what he took away from his time with Parcells, Belichick commented that the best thing Parcells did was give him the freedom to run the defense the way he wanted to. He gave Belichick a lot of discretion and authority. Belichick appreciates that to this day.
Perhaps he is trying to do the same for Mangini. By having freedom delegated from Belichick, Mangini is free to learn and exert his authority to the guys he is coaching more. They’ll trust him more, in theory, and the ability to coach them will grow. But the one major difference GDRV sees between the two situations is that Parcells himself was a young coach like Belichick, relatively, in the early years with the Giants. That isn’t the case here. Belichick is a defensive mastermind with over thirty years of coaching in the NFL at this point. He is one of the sharpest defensive minds in the NFL. He simply has to start putting that expertise on defense to better use.
Of course, GDRV assumes and knows Belichick is involved now. He is working on and approving the game plans. He is helping and suggesting calls and lineup changes. Everything of course goes through him. But whatever his exact role, it needs to be more. It just does. He doesn’t need to strip Mangini of the job or anything drastic like that. But he needs to help him more. He needs to be more personally involved in the down to down defensive calls and less discretion, if necessary, should be going to Mangini. In the end, it will help Mangini and allow him to better get through this difficult first year as a coordinator. GDRV has to think Belichick will eventually give in to this conclusion as well as it is unlikely he’ll continue to suffer these kind of defensive performances on his record kindly.
The special teams were a disappointment last night as well. Particularly since the Patriots appeared to have an advantage there going in. The coverage teams were inconsistent. The return teams had a bad night both from the returners and the blockers. Kicker Adam Vinatierri’s kickoffs were shorter than normal.
All in all an alarming night. Things will get slightly easier heading to Miami next week, but not much. GDRV will be back to preview that game later in the week.