By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
What a difference seven years makes. Before Monday night, the last time the Patriots played down in the New Orleans Superdome, they were the improbable victors in Super Bowl XXXVI. You’d be hard pressed to find any similarities between the two games. After a promising start, the Patriots completely, utterly and totally splintered into pieces in the face of the now 11-0 New Orleans Saints juggernaut, falling 38-17 in a game that didn’t feel that close. For the second time in three weeks, the defense was exposed as unable to make a play or get a stop in the face of a high-powered offense. Shredded every which way by Drew Brees and the Saints explosive O, the game felt like the fourth quarter of the Indianapolis game stretched out across a full four periods. The Saints converted an obscene eight plays of 20 yards or more, scored touchdowns of 75 and 38 yards and had their quarterback toss five TD passes to five different receivers. Anything they wanted to do, they did, and the Pats were powerless to stop them. Offensively, the Pats let one early miscue get the better of them, both in terms of their play-calling and their execution, and were unable to stand up to the Saints pressure or multiple coverages. It was so bad, that a 33-year-old cornerback who was signed off the street last week and was playing in his first game in over a full calendar year, dominated Tom Brady, Randy Moss and anyone else who came near him. Yes, PDU students, it was that bad, and there is no doubt that this team is nowhere near the top echelon of the NFL. The Patriots were 100 percent outmatched and outclassed. About the only good to come out of the entire debacle is the fact that it can be rehashed and then forgotten quickly, as the Pats prepare to head back into their lousy division with amatchup against the reeling Dolphins coming up this Sunday. So with that in mind, let’s quickly get to and then away from this week’s report card.
OFFENSE: Overall Grade: C-
It says a lot for an offense as a whole when its best player in game has a whopping 87 total yards, his third lost fumble in three weeks and only plays a few snaps in the second half, doesn’t it? But that’s the way it went for the Pats offense on Monday night, with only Laurence Maroney and Sam Aiken making any sort of impact. On their first quarter scoring drive which encompassed 14 plays, 80 yards and 7:40 of clock, the Pats found early chink in the Saints armor with Maroney running hard, basically handling all the chores himself. But after having so much success running early, they went away from the strategy almost immediately on their next possession, following a Wes Welker punt return that gave the ball in Saints territory. The result was Brady’s first pick, a quick Saints TD and ultimately, the end of the game. As hideous as the defense was all night, the inability of the Pats offense to handle almost anything they saw out of the Saints D was quite troubling. They couldn’t block and couldn’t adjust at all to Moss and Welker being blanketed by double teams. And again, they were unable to make any kind of headway in the second half, managing a measly seven points. Stunningly awful.
Brady played easily his worst game of the year and perhaps his worst game in several years. His timing and accuracy were both woefully off. He looked flustered and rattled almost from the beginning, undoubtedly because his two top targets were taken away from him. On his first interception, he misread the coverage, forced the ball and bothunderthrew and threw behind Moss (across his body) practically handing the ball to McKenzie. On his second, he basically just tossed one up for grabs into an area occupied by three Saints and no Patriots. He was under pressure from a Saints front that never seemed to send more than four guys at him and while that’s a more damning indictment of the offensive line than him, it was eerily similar to the way he couldn’t get comfortable against a similar array of looks from the Giants front four in Super BowlXLII . Even when he had time and Moss got open down the field on the first drive of the game, he didn’t see it. His numbers (21-of-36 for 237 yards, 6.6YPA, two picks against zero scores and a 55.0 passer rating) were Mark Sanchez-esque. He was yanked with five minutes left to play. It was as bad a game as I can remember Brady having in a long, long time.
Running Backs: B-
About the only bright spot last night, Maroney continued to impress with his tough running inside and less insistence on dancing. He scored two more TDs, giving him at least one in six straight games and eight on the year. He continued to run downhill with his head down and on several occasions again was looking to take guys on after making his way into the Saints second and third line of defense. Of course, he fumbled again, giving him three in three weeks, and although the Pats fortuitously got the ball back on the same play, it can’t go unnoticed that he now has a problem holding on to the ball. He barely played in the second half (ESPN’s Mike Reiss counted his second half snaps at three), likely as a result of the circumstances of the game, though the fumble couldn’t have helped. KevinFaulk had another solid game, catching a couple of important throws out of the backfield and running hard on a couple of those inside draws out of shotgun formations. And Sammy Morris returned, picking up a crucial first down on a fourth down run on that first quarter scoring drive, as well as dropping an easy looking swing pass in the second quarter that may have gone a long way toward slowing the Saints momentum, as it appeared to be an first down.
Wide Receivers: C-
Double team Moss and Welker all night and look what happens. Both are non-factors. With seven or eight guys back in coverage, Welker had a corner (mostly rookie Malcolm Jenkins) on his hip for the entire game, as well as a linebacker or safety spying him from behind so that he would be unable to make any yards after the catch and it worked.Welker was held to just 32 yards on six catches with a long of 10 yards and was a non-factor. Moss also couldn’t get going against the rusty McKenzie and the constant safety help over the top, managing just three catches for 67 yards (the longest of which was a prayer that fell into his arms as he stood in the middle of a zone). He alligator armed one quick slant too, looking more worried about getting blasted (which he did anyway) than catching the ball. Only Aiken, who was the only receiver not to be doubled, did any damage, catching a career-high seven passes for 90 yards. As nice a game as it was for Aiken, when he’s the leading receiver, that probably means things aren’t working out too well.
Tight Ends: C
Nothing really doing for these guys, once again. Ben Watson had two catches for 14 yards and also dropped one that hit him in the face. Chris Baker played a fair amount and other than some nice work in the running game on that first drive, was completely invisible. I wonder if the Pats may try to diversify things a bit and get these guys a little more involved in the offense. With Welker and Moss so limited on Monday night, it sure would have been nice to see them do something.
Offensive Line: C-
Sebastian Vollmer missed the game due to his head injury (or concussion, as everyone but the Pats call it) which led to the return of Matt Light. Light was obviously rusty and had a hard time handling Saints defensive end Will Smith, who had four tackles and 1.5 sacks. Nick Kaczur had another crappy game on the other side of the line, and he hasn’t looked at all the same since being abused by Robert Mathis a couple weeks ago. Stephen Neal was back, got hurt again but managed to keep playing until things were out hand late when he ceded his spot to Dan Connolly. Logan Mankins and Dan Koppen didn’t do anything terrible but did nothing to distinguish themselves either. All in all, Brady was sacked just twice but he was hit seven more times and under pressure from three and sometimes four man rushes frequently. Like in the Super Bowl two years ago, this group was unable to stay with quicker, more athletic opponents, even with a numbers advantage. It’s inconceivable that five, sometimes six guys can’t block four or even three, but it happened, both against the Giants two years ago and to some extent, on Monday night. Even with so many guys back in coverage, Brady is good enough to find openings with enough time. That’s where the line comes in. And they have to play much, much better.
DEFENSE: Overall Grade: F
Let’s just start with the raw numbers. The Saints had 480 yards. Drew Brees was 18-of-23 for 371 yards and five TDs. Those eight plays of 20 yards or more netted 312 yards. They also ran for 113 yards and routinely pushed the pile back on runs up the middle. Other than the first quarter stop that preceded the big punt return and subsequent INT, there was not a single positive sequence for the Pats on defense until the game was already decided. No one played well and several guys were horrible, starting with the supposed future of the unit,Jerod Mayo and Brandon Meriweather. There is no identity to this defense, no playmakers, no pass rushers, etc, all of which was painfully on display on Monday night.
Defensive Line: D
I never thought I’d write this in a million years, but here goes: Vince Wilfork got pushed around. He made some plays, yes. But the Saints decided to try their collective hand at double teaming him while allowing Mike Wright and Jarvis Green and Ty Warren, neither at 100 percent, room to make plays. It worked. There was zero push up the middle and neither Warren (who left the game for a stretch thanks to his troublesome ankle) nor Green did anything.Wilfork in recent weeks has become the only dependable player on the entire defense (which is yet another reason why the team must re-sign him) and he’s handled this role with aplomb. But when the opponent devotes so much attention to him, someone else along the line has do do something. And no one did on Monday night. Who knows if it would have made any difference, but it would have at least been comforting to have has Richard Seymour in that game. As it happened, it wasWilfork-on-five and as good as big Vince is, those odds are pretty much insurmountable.
The weakest link of the Pats D (although the way the secondary played on Monday, that assessment is now up for debate) was as weak as ever against the Saints. Mayo and Guyton led on the stat sheet but neither did anything of consequence, especially Mayo. In fact, the defending AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year was one of the chief culprits in the slaughter, continually overrunning plays, getting faked out of his spikes or being blown off the ball. On a run by Saints back Pierre Thomas on New Orleans’ first drive of the game, Mayo stepped into the huge hole set himself for the hit, and threw his entire body at Thomas’ quick juke right, not even getting a fingernail on him. It was a total whiff and it summed up the entire night for the Pats linebacking corps. It’s hard to fathom what’s up with Mayo, who has been mediocre at best for the past few weeks. Maybe he came back too soon from his opening night knee injury and isn’t playing at 100 percent. Maybe he was able to hide behind veterans lik eTedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Seymour last year and prosper because he was not the main focus of opposing offensive coordinators. Maybe he’s not that good. I think it’s a combination of the first two possibilities but regardless, he’s not getting the job done right now. Other than a couple of tackles, Tully Banta-Cain was neutralized, not getting near Brees all night, which isn’t a good sign when you’re the team’s leader in sacks. Adalius Thomas got to Brees a couple of times, once for a sack, but looked slow more often than not. And as for my favorite, Derrick Burgess, he didn’t make a play once again, for something like the 10th time this season. But at least it wasn’t impossible to know he was even active this week by virtue of his total wave and miss of Thomas as the Saints’ back ran outside on his second quarter TD catch. Burgess pretty much got there but had zero closing speed and was left flailing as Thomas left him in the dust. Since I ask this question pretty much every week, here goes – why is he even on the team?
Gonna just scratch the surface here, dear readers, as there is nothing to analyze other than to note that this group just plain sucked. Leigh Bodden was toasted on the Saints’ first play from scrimmage and had zero impact whatsoever. Jonathan Wilhite continued to be unmercifully picked on and proved yet again that while he has the speed to stay with anyone, he has no idea how to cover or play the ball, a fact spotlighted on Robert Meachem’s 38-yard scoring reception in the second quarter. Brandon McGowan had his worst game of the year, not making a single play or big hit and spending most of his time on the field chasing receivers from at least three yards behind. And as for Brandon Meriweather , I hope this game will put an end to all of this lunacy that he is among the best safeties in the game. He’s had three good games this year, against Buffalo, Tennessee and Tampa, who among them have 22 losses.Devery Henderson’s 75-yard touchdown, on which he ran a straight line down the seam, caught the ball without anyone withing 40 yards of him and skipped into the end zone was entirely on Meriweather, who went the wrong way when Wilhite came on a corner blitz. He is often out of position usually because he’s overran the play (see Marques Colston’s 68-yard catch in the third quarter), bites on almost every head fake and can’t cover at all. The fact that he is a big hitter is meaningless. What he is is a talented but erratic player who by no means is ready to handle the amount of responsibility that has been rested on his shoulders since Rodney Harrison retired, especially against complex, talented offenses. I think he has the potential to be one of those elite safeties. But he isn’t one yet. Not even close.
Special Teams: D
Welker’s 41-yard punt return in the first quarter was the lone highlight, unless you count kick return man Matthew Slater getting clotheslined around the 30-yard line a couple times a highlight. Stephen Gostkowski, who has been average and nothing more lately, missed a 50-yarder with three seconds left in the first half that would have been a big help to the Pats momentum but instead further deflated them. Oh yeah, punter Chris Hanson averaged 46 yards on his three punts. To quoteRasheed Wallace, whoop dee damn doo.
After the game, Belichick repeatedly mentioned the Pats’ many “enormous mistakes” on defense. Certainly, the talent discrepancy between the two teams was a big factor here, but so was the coaching. If guys were continually missing assignments, like on Henderson’s TD, is it solely because they’re dumb? Or forgot how to play? Or did their coaches not have them in the right positions, or worse yet, not drill their responsibilities to them hard enough? And on offense, Brady frequently looked at the sideline with a rather perplexed expression which probably had at least something to do with his inability to get anything going. So where were the adjustments? The play-calling, so good on that first drive, grew predictable, stale and even sort of slow afterward. Nothing they tried worked, on offense from the second quarter on and on defense all night. Everything the Saints tried worked flawlessly. Again, the disparity in talent from one team to another is the chief reason for this. But the fact that Belichick and his staff had so little to turn to when things started to go bad has nothing to do with the players and everything to do with the coaches.