By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
In the midst of a 2-0 start to the Patriots season, one persistent question remained prevalent. What happens when Tom Brady doesn’t play like some strange mutation of Joe Montana, Sammy Baugh and Johnny Unitas? We got our answer on Sunday, when the Pats fell to the Buffalo Bills, 34-31, in Orchard Park, NY. Brady, who played the first quarter and a half pretty much exactly how he played his first two games, which is to say, otherworldly, stalled out with a 21-0 lead and wound up throwing four interceptions, his most in a game since a November, 2006, matchup with the Colts, as well as the same amount as he threw in the entirety of last year. It was a head-scratching performance by the best QB in the NFL, but regardless, Brady’s mishaps gave the Pats defense an opportunity to step up and take the reins of winning a game. Brady has been picking up the D with regularity for the past three years; Sunday in Buffalo was the D’s chance to return the favor.
Instead, it rolled over and died like one gasping, wheezing, wounded dog.
The Pats proved in this one that they have the worst defense in the NFL and if you don’t believe it, I dare you to name three that are worse. After holding Buffalo to a quiet first quarter in which they averaged barely 4.5 yards per play and turned the ball over twice, the Pats and their cadre of scrubs remembered that they are just that, a cadre of scrubs. The Bills rolled up 445 more yards of offense, 369 through the air. They completed a whopping nine passes for 20 or more yards and ran 11 plays from scrimmage that netted at least 16 yards. They scored all 34 of their points in the last three quarters. And the Pats, who once again got zero pressure on an opposing quarterback (no sacks, two hits in 40 dropbacks – this is a recording), stood and watched when they weren’t flailing, chasing or running into each other. The revamped defense we heard so much about in training camp is just as bad, if not worse, than the old, not revamped defense of 2009 and 2010. Some of the names may be different but the results are not. Not to absolve Brady, the lack of a consistent running game, any pass catchers not named Welker (who had a record-setting day) or Gronkowski doing nothing or some coaching decisions that ran the gamut from questionable to hare-brained. All conspired in this loss. But the defense gets the lion’s share of the blame, if for no other reason than that it has been abominable for two-plus seasons now and is getting worse, not better. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card, with apologies if it’s at all defensive. Hell, something has to be.
Brady looked so unstoppable from the Pats first possession through their third TD at the 6:02 mark of the second quarter, it seemed beyond impossible to imagine what was to follow. The Pats took the opening kickoff and went 80 yards in nine plays with Brady alternating between completing perfect passes to Welker and Rob Gronkowski, the last of which was a 14-yard TD pass on which he timed his throw to Welker on an option route about as well as it could have been timed. Less than three minutes later, on the heels of a Kyle Arrington interception, Brady threaded his second TD needle on a brilliant play fake to Gronk from the 1. Yet despite the 14-point cushion, a pattern was emerging and it would come back to haunt Brady and the offense. Without Aaron Hernandez, out with a knee injury, the Pats went mostly to a three-wide attack. But it seemed like every throw was going in the direction of either Welker or Gronk. Brady did try to spread it around a little bit; Danny Woodhead and Julian Edelman had a handful of balls thrown their way, as did Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco (more on them later). But with Welker and Gronkowski clearly being the weapons of choice for Brady in the passing game, the Bills defense picked itself up off the mat and began to key on them both. This seemed to unnerve Brady, who would go on to throw all four of his picks from the 1:56 mark of the second quarter on. The first, which was a wide throw tipped by Woodhead inside the Bills 10, led to a Buffalo field goal and sent the two teams into halftime at 21-10 as opposed to 28-7. The second, on the Pats first play from scrimmage in the second half (and on the heels of the defense actually holding the Bills to a three-and-out), was an in route throw to Ochocinco undercut by the defender (whether or not Ochocinco warrants the blame for running a soft pattern is open to interpretation). The third, Brady’s worst of the day by far, was a forced attempt at the same seam route throw to Gronk that had worked so well up to that point. The Bills sent a double team but Brady’s throw was flat and picked off by Buffalo’s George Wilson, who got underneath Gronk. A loftier, higher pass, like the one Brady hit to Gronk on the tight end’s second TD, would have negated the turnover. And the fourth was just bad luck; a low throw that doinked off a lineman’s helmet and run back for a score (oh, and it also came on the first play after the Bills had tied the game at 24, giving them their first lead). Brady wound up 30-of-45 for 387 yards and four TDs, stellar numbers to be sure. And his leading of the game-tying drive in the fourth quarter was vintage Brady. But the four picks killed the offense and as we now know, more clearly than ever, when Brady is less than perfect, the Pats are screwed.
Running Backs: C
First, credit to rookie Stevan Ridley, who saw his first extended playing time of the season and responded with 44 yards on seven carries (6.3 yards per attempt). Ridley was decisive, quick and showed a string burst at the line of scrimmage when he hit the hole. He should most definitely be in line for more snaps in the coming weeks. After that, it was a whole lot of nothing. The Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis never got going, running for 10 yards on his first five carries before finding the bench well into the second half. When he did resurface, he got two tries from his favorite place, the goal line, but was stuffed on each of them. He finished with 16 yards on nine attempts and those numbers along with the inability to get into the end zone on consecutive tries from the 1 combined with Ridley’s performance may spell fewer snap for BJGE going forward. And Danny Woodhead, also in limited time (24 of 75 offensive snaps), had a rather mundane game (six rushes for 21 yards, three catches for 20 yards), his biggest moment coming on the pass he tipped that turned into Brady’s first INT. The workload was split mostly evenly (BJGE played 28 snaps) between the two primary backs with Ridley seeing spot duty. Still, even though the Pats finished with 108 yards on 26 attempts (4.2 YPA), none of it was all that distinguished.
Wide Receivers: B
No more words may be typed before we single out Wes Welker, the best player on the Patriots not named Brady. Welker had the game of his life on Sunday, catching an astonishing 16 passes for a franchise record 217 yards and two TDs. He was a first down machine, moving the chains all day and making catch after catch after catch, well after it became clear he was the only guy to whom Brady was throwing the ball. His two TDs were each exceptional, the first one that option route on which he went inside, cut hard back to the numbers and left his man in the dust and the second, a beautiful piece of improvisation on which he found his way back to Brady after running a short curl to tie the game on fourth down late in the final quarter. It’s a real shame that the Pats let this game get away; Welker should have been the top story at every media outlet after his outstanding performance. He was that good and his incredible value to this team has rarely been higher. Sadly, he was a one-man show on Sunday. Branch played all but six snaps yet only had three passes thrown his way and caught none of them. After Branch’s first two games of the season and particularly with the Pats unable to use two tight ends at any point, this development was one of the more confusing aspects of the afternoon. And then there’s Ochocinco. Chad played twice as many snaps as he did in either of his first two games but wasn’t any better. He caught two passes for 28 yards, dropped a wide open deep ball down the far sideline that was a sure TD in the fourth quarter (one of the more horrific drops seen in these parts in a long time, by the way; Brady couldn’t have placed the ball any better if he’d walked up to Ochocinco and handed it to him) and was as responsible for one of Brady’s INT as the QB thanks to his lazy route running. We may well have another Joey Galloway on our hands with this guy and while he’s unlikely to be shown the door before the halfway point of the season like Galloway was, he may well have a hard time finding his way into Brady’s circle of trust after his first three games here.
Tight Ends: B
This section should actually be headed Tight End, as Gronk was the only one active thanks to A-Herb’s injury and the jettisoning of his brother Dan (a.k.a. Gronk 2). Gronk set a couple of career highs himself, catching seven passes for 109 yards and two scores while continuing to show remarkable athleticism, agility and quickness in doing so (his second TD, a 26-yarder on a seam route, was a phenomenal catch). Gronk played every snap of the game but one and while he did have another false start penalty, he was excellent and dependable as always. Still, getting A-Herb back will help him and the offense immensely.
Offensive Line: B
Brady had time to throw all day. He wasn’t sacked once and even though Matt Light got beat by Shawne Merriman on one occasion (the first time Merriman has gotten around anyone in four years), the protection was first-rate once again. The Pats have shown no ill effects of being without Dan Koppen and for the most part, Sebastian Vollmer, in this regard. But there were some key penalties that could not have been more poorly timed. Nate Solder played well at right tackle but had a hands to the face infraction that wiped out a 35-yard pass to Gronk. Logan Mankins was called for holding on what would have been an important first down run by BJGE late in third quarter, then got nabbed for a huge false start at the Bills 2-yard line on the Pats tying drive in the fourth quarter, a penalty that was precipitated by Dan Connolly not being aware of the play clock. The Pats would score two plays later, absolving Mankins and Connolly somewhat, but those penalties could have been deadly. And the lack of push from this group on both of those no-gains by BJGE from the Bills 1 wasn’t pretty. The O-line has had far worse days. But it’s had far better ones too.
Defensive Line: F
If memory serves, the cornerstone of the Pats revamping their defense revolved around importing Albert Haynesworth, Shaun Ellis, Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, all defensive linemen, to improve a woeful pass rush in an attempt to take some pressure off a young, inexperienced secondary. The Pats have always been a 3-4 alignment defense in the Bill Belichick era but with all these new, big name pass rushers joining Vince Wilfork up front, the scheme changed, with the team now operating out of a 4-3 base. And guess what? It hasn’t made one iota of a difference. Haynesworth has barely played and made little to no impact when he has. Ellis has been so invisible, I forgot he was even active until I saw him standing over a pileup in the fourth quarter on Sunday. Carter has made a couple of plays but his biggest moment thus far was a phantom roughing the passer penalty against San Diego last week. Only Anderson, in very spotted duty, has done anything remotely impactful, none of which came on Sunday, when he played but two snaps after halftime. About the only thing you might be able to give this group any credit for against the Bills was holding Fred Jackson, the league’s leading rusher, under 100 yards for the first time this season (but try to forget the fact that he still managed to pick up over six yards per carry). The idea of getting stronger, faster and better on the defensive line was a good one. If none of the players brought in to carry it out are actually any good, though, then it doesn’t matter in the slightest.
One time, that’s one time in the entire game did a Patriots linebacker make a play that mattered. In the second quarter, Gary Guyton made a nice read of a delayed screen pass and followed up Anderson’s run at Buffalo QB Ryan Fitzpatrick by holding up Jackson and stopping him for a short gain. It was Guyton’s only tackle of the game. And that’s about it. Jerod Mayo had his second totally invisible game out of three this season and it’s starting to get very tiresome listening to/reading about him being an impact player. Brandon Spikes looks like a bust; he wiped out his own man on a third quarter Fitzpatrick TD pass to tight end Scott Chandler, a play on which Chandler stood alone in the end zone with no Patriot with 20 yards of him. Spikes played a lot more in nickel packages than he normally does and pretty much validated why he usually heads to the sideline in such situations, as he can’t cover or stay with a paper bag. Rob Ninkovich, one of the better members of this group, did nothing but get called for roughing the passer. And Jermaine Cunningham, yet another recent second-round draft choice who has not been able to make any kind of impact, was once again relegated to goal line duty and couldn’t be more buried unless he was on the scout team. He showed promise as a rookie but looks like he’s regressed as much as anyone on the team. This is a sorry lot the Patriots are stuck with. None of them are playmakers, most of them are so limited, they can’t play on every down and all of them are disappointments to say the least, especially on Sunday.
Defensive Backs: F
The cherry on top of the shit sundae, the Patriots secondary did the unthinkable by reaching new lows in Buffalo. Again, the Bills ran nine pass plays that went for 20 yards or more, starting with a 33-yard bomb to Steve Johnson on their first play of the game. They would successfully do this pretty much every time they tried it as the fall of Devin McCourty and incompetence of Leigh Bodden continued. Left to play man-to-man all day, neither McCourty or Bodden got any jam or pressure on any receivers off the line of scrimmage and each was beaten by multiple steps on multiple occasions. Bodden, who was very good in 2009 before missing last season with an injury, even got beat by almost two full yards on a play on which he was called for holding, that’s how bad he was. McCourty has gone from being an All-Pro type to virtually helpless; he hasn’t been able to stay with anybody one-on-one through three games and is clearly not the same player he was last year. It’s amazing how far each of these two has fallen. Behind them, with Patrick Chung and Ras-I Dowling out, both Josh Barrett and Sergio Brown played every down and each looked pathetic. Brown missed several tackles and was called for the costliest penalty of the day, a pass interference in the end zone that negated an INT on the worst throw Fitzpatrick made in the game. And Barrett made Brandon Meriweather look like an Hall-of-Famer, failing to help over the top in a timely fashion all day, missing tackles (including missing Jackson on a 38-yard catch and run right before the Bills kicked the winning field goal so badly, he fell down without even touching him) and just looking lost. It was so hideous, Belichick actually praised McCourty for chasing down Jackson on that very play to keep him out of the end zone (even though had Jackson scored, the Pats would have gotten the ball back). Only Kyle Arrington, who had two first half picks, escapes scorn here, although in the second half , he was out there for most of the carnage with all the rest of the stiffs. The Patriots have now allowed Chad Henne and Ryan Fitzpatrick to throw for 415 and 369 yards, respectively. They are allowing 26.3 points and 487 yards per game. 370 of those are through the air. And there’s nothing else to say.
Special Teams: B
Not a bad day here. Stephen Gostkowski made his only field goal attempt and boomed several kickoffs through the end zone. Our man Zoltan was no worse for the wear from the knee injury he suffered against the Chargers and had a great game with two boomers and one perfectly placed poocher inside the Bills 10. Julian Edelman had a decent day in the return game and the kick coverage units, led by the recently re-signed Ross Ventrone, were solid.
Never mind the strange timeout called by Belichick after the replay review of Jackson’s long play leading up to the winning field goal. Instead, focus on the timeout he was forced to use on third-and-goal from the 1 on the Pats game-tying drive with the play clock running out. Or the fact that coming out of that timeout, the play clock nearly ran out again and Mankins got called for that false start. Or the fact that even though McCourty and Bodden were getting burned by multiple yards all day, the Pats stayed in man coverage on the outside throughout. Or the fact that on 31 of 40 Buffalo pass attempts, the Pats, desperate for any semblance of a pass rush for going on three years now, rushed four men or less. Or the fact that with a 21-0 lead, there was little or no attempt to use the clock to their advantage, with the offense continuing to run a track meet (though in Belichick’s defense on this one, he may have known that even a three-TD lead wasn’t enough and thus felt the need to keep scoring). Look at all of these aspects of the loss. Then look at the bigger picture, which is that despite devoting one high draft pick after another to the defensive side of the ball going all the way back to 2007, the Pats still can’t stop anyone, have zero playmakers and can’t get off the field when they need to. Belichick really has his work cut out for him. He’s known as a defensive genius and rightly so. But that reputation fades a little bit more every week that this sorry unit goes out there to get carved up by journeymen like Fitzpatrick and Henne. He and his staff had better figure something out soon or yet another year will end in bitter disappointment.