By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- Here's the frustrating part if you're the New England Patriots: You have the very worst defense in the National Football League, and yet you're still just a couple of plays away from having a 3-1 record through the first month of the season.
If your defense was just very bad or moderately bad, then you'd have yourself three wins. If your defense was halfway decent, then you'd be 4-0.
That's how powerful the offense is, and that's how good this team should be.
Instead, they're 2-2, and they've got a fairly unfriendly schedule coming up. It's a short week and a road trip to Tampa coming up on Thursday, and after what should be a gimme against the Jets, they'll be hosting the Falcons on Sunday Night Football. The Week 10 trip to Denver followed by Oakland in Mexico City in Week 11 remains a daunting task, and three straight road games -- at Buffalo, Miami and Pittsburgh -- in Weeks 13-15 cannot be dismissed as it was so quickly by many during the summer.
While it's too soon in the year to accurately state what this team's final record will be, we do know now that they're 2-2 through four games for just the fifth time since 2003. In all four of those previous seasons (2014, 2012, 2005, 2003), the Patriots won their fifth game to climb to 3-2. They twice won the Super Bowl, once with a 14-2 record, once with a 12-4 record. They finished 2012 with a 12-4 record and an AFC title game loss, and they finished 2005 with a 10-6 record, losing on the road in the divisional round.
So there's no reason to close up shop on the season. In terms of wins and losses, the Patriots have weathered this type of start before. They haven't held a sub-.500 record after Week 4 since 2001, when they were 2-3 overall but 2-1 under their new quarterback, Tom Brady. That's the same person who's most likely to prevent them from falling into that hole here in 2017. He seems capable.
But man, does it look bad. With a capital BAD. At a certain point, given the collective football IQ that fills the meeting rooms at Gillette Stadium, you'd think this would be solved. But for now, there's a sense of bewilderment about how the defense can be this bad.
Let's move on to the leftover thoughts from the Patriots' 33-30 loss at home to Carolina.
--The defense, by the way, is leaps and bounds worse than anyone else. The Patriots have allowed 456.8 yards per game. The second-worst team is Indianapolis, which has allowed 396.3 yards per game. They're in slightly better position in terms of points allowed, as they rank 31st at 32 points per game. But the gap from No. 30 (Tennessee, 31.5) to No. 29 (Cleveland, 26.8) is rather drastic.
Any time the Browns are much better than you in any area except losing, you need to take a long look in the mirror.
--I want to chime in on Stephon Gilmore's penalties. It's easy -- extremely easy -- to sit back and say, "How can you commit those penalties in those spots? That's terrible." And I get it. The results were lousy.
But ... that's really the type of hand-to-hand combat that takes place on almost every play in the NFL. Gilmore was playing a physical style of defense, and it was often returned in kind by whichever receiver he was covering. I actually remarked in the first half that it looked like Gilmore and Kelvin Benjamin might be in a fist fight before the day was through.
The first hands to the face penalty was literally a stray finger on the facemask as Benjamin turned his head. The second was perhaps a misfire on an intended jab to the chest of Devin Funchess. Certainly, neither penalty was egregious, and had the officials not thrown the flags, then nobody would have even noticed the infraction taking place.
That's not to entirely excuse Gilmore for the back-breaking penalties, because he should have known after the first one was called that he had to be extraordinarily careful with how this particular crew was calling it. But I do think the ease with which so many have just said "stupid penalty" has been a bit disingenuous.
--Do you know what's really crazy? Like, really really crazy? For as bad as the defense played, I look at two missed opportunities on offense for the Patriots that should have been successes. They probably would have led to a win.
One came early on the opening drive. Brandin Cooks put a dirty double move on corner James Bradberry and got himself wide open up the left sideline. Safety Kurt Coleman was coming over the top to help, but there was still a window for Brady to fit in a deep touchdown pass, especially if he erred toward the pylon to give Cooks a chance and keep Coleman out of the picture. Instead, he threw more toward the middle of the field and not at all where Cooks expected it to be:
The Patriots settled for a field goal on that drive.
The other missed deep shot should have been even easier for Brady, who rolled right early in the third quarter and had a wide open Dwayne Allen spring free up the right side. Brady took an extra tick to recognize Allen being so open. Here's the moment the safety peeled off Allen, for whatever reason, when Brady was looking left:
And here's how large the window was for Brady to throw once he noticed how open Allen was:
And here's where the pass ultimately ended up:
It was an underthrow -- not a horrific underthrow, but nevertheless an underthrow -- on a play where Brady had a lot of room to work with. Granted, Allen got both hands on the ball when coming back to it and should have made the catch. But it just was not precise execution.
Brady took a sack on the next play, and the Patriots punted. Points off the board.
--The point of highlighting those plays is twofold. For one, the obvious spotlight on a missed opportunity. But more importantly, to point out the fact that this offense basically has to play perfect right now in order to win football games. That is not a healthy way for a football team to operate, and it's entirely too much of a weight on the shoulders of Brady and the offense to operate at an unattainable level for 60 minutes every week.
Two years ago, I pointed out that no quarterback has ever thrown 600 pass attempts in a season and gone on to win the Super Bowl. Only four of 43 had even made a Super Bowl. And through four weeks this year, Brady has already thrown 155 passes, putting him on pace to throw 620 passes.
In the years the Patriots have won Super Bowls, Brady threw 413 passes in 2001 (472 when prorated over 16 starts), 527 passes in 2003, 474 passes in 2004, 582 passes in 2014, and 432 passes in 2016 (576 when prorated over 16 starts). The years when he's topped 600 passes -- 2002, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015 -- did not end the way the Patriots wanted.
It may seem like a minor difference, but the history is the history. A team that requires its quarterback to throw the ball 600 times has never won a Super Bowl. The Patriots might want to develop some semblance of a running game and a passable defense if they want to avoid running their 40-year-old quarterback into the ground.
--It's difficult, though to get your running game going when your running game looks like this:
--It's impossible to not notice Luke Kuechly on the field, and that was never more true than a four-play stretch late in the first quarter.
On first-and-10, Kuechly kept his eyes in the backfield while getting blocked by the 6-foot-6 Rob Gronkowski before shedding the block and making the tackle:
The Patriots ran a nearly identical play on the next snap, but to the left side. Kuechly once again shed the block of Gronkowski to make the tackle:
On the next snap, Kuechly slipped right through the middle of the line to stop Gillislee for a 1-yard gain:
Brady threw to fullback James Develin on the next play, and it was Kuechly who made the tackle:
It may not have been a particularly remarkable moment in the game, but it's hard not to appreciate it when it happens. They don't make a lot of football players like Kuechly.
--When you consider all the illegal contact and defensive holding and pass interference that Rob Gronkowski has to work through on a regular basis because he's so big and so strong, then you should conclude that he should almost never be called for offensive pass interference. Yet on this day, for whatever reason, he was penalized for running a route.
Let me know when you see where the penalty is committed. Is it here, when Kuechly bumps him within five yards of the line of scrimmage?
Was it here, when Gronkowski freed himself from Kuechly's grasp while planting his feet and cutting on an out route?
That's a stretch.
I asked Gronkowski if he got an explanation from the officials. He said he didn't.
"Once you see a call like that, you gotta know what's going on, what kind of game is being called, how to play the game," he said. "You just go with the flow. So, that's what you gotta do."
I feel like that's one of the more difficult aspects of playing football that often gets overlooked. As a player, you just don't know what's a penalty from week to week, from officiating crew to officiating crew. Two years ago, the league was seemingly cracking down on offensive pass interference by Gronkowski. And after Sunday, it's something to monitor now.
While the left arm was extended a bit when releasing from Kuechly, it was the linebacker who initiated the contact. And again, when you think about how often Gronkowski fights through grabs and shoves that might knock other players off course, only the most egregious of fouls should draw a flag on No. 87.
--Speaking of Gronkowski, he set the record for most receiving yards from Tom Brady, and moved into third all time in Patriots franchise history in receiving yards. And he did it on a play that was so typically Gronkowski.
He made a catch in stride and was first contacted at the 30-yard line.
He fended off safety Demetrious Cox -- who, by the way, is an NFL player who lifts weights and practices and everything -- for a full 15 yards. And it was Gronkowski who ended up shoving the defender to the turf:
--Interestingly, that exact spot on the field was somewhat of a hot spot when it came to ball carriers barreling through defenders. Eric Rowe learned the hard way that Christian McCaffrey is pretty damn powerful.
Act I Scene I:
Act I Scene II:
Act I Scene III:
And the denouement:
--Rowe also missed this tackle on Funchess, which would have forced a Carolina punt:
Instead of forcing a Carolina punt with just under three minutes left in the half, Rowe allowed the drive to continue. Carolina marched all the way to the end zone. And then after replacing Gilmore to start the second half, Rowe suffered a reaggravation of his groin injury. Bad day for Rowe.
--You know, if you read this column every week, that the Patriots have a magical way of enticing opposing teams to run the vaunted Zero Humans Defense from time to time. Well, don't ever say the Patriots don't like to give back to the community, because they were handing out the Zero Humans Defense like it was a fun size candy bar on Halloween.
As somebody who's watched the Patriots play football with excellence over the years, I found these plays to be puzzling. So I went to the source, the man who could lay it all out for me in plain detail and explain what the heck happened. I went to Bill Belichick. I asked him, "Hey, Bill. Now what's this all about?"
His answer was illuminating.
"Yeah," the Hall of Fame coach said. "We didn't do a good job."
Ah. I get it now.
--The Whittaker touchdown really was fascinating. The Patriots' defense basically looked like a bunch of beheaded chickens. Or, as Devin McCourty put it, "It had to look like a couple of idiots out there." That's strong language, but he said it, not me.
It's hard to pinpoint blame on the play. What is clear is that Gilmore, McCourty, and Kyle Van Noy all sold out on Christian McCaffrey, who motioned left to right before the snap. Elandon Roberts burst up the gut in a pass rush. In doing so, nobody accounted for Whittaker, who had enough room to crabwalk into the end zone from 28 yards out if he chose to go that route.
It just looked like the type of defensive play you might see if you stopped in at your nephew's Pop Warner game. But only early in the season. By Week 4, the coaches of your nephew's Pop Warner team would have made sure something like this would never happen in a game.
--The Funchess touchdown before halftime was equally as bad, though it didn't look quite as bad. But make no mistake, when both Gilmore and Rowe went to cover Ed Dickson and left Funchess uncovered, it was very, very bad.
As far as I can tell, that one's on Gilmore. Rowe ended up looking bad, because he saw Gilmore covering Dickson and tried to make up ground on Funchess. But when Funchess motioned to the offensive left, Gilmore was the outside man and most likely should have covered him. But Gilmore (who might have been signaling that he thought a screen was coming, as McCourty and Rowe tried to sort things out behind him) ended up locking in on the inside man:
That doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but in any event, it made life very easy for Cam Newton.
--Oh, speaking of Newton. He entered the game with 2 TDs and 4 INTs and a completion percentage of 61.5 for 189 yards per game. His passer rating in Weeks 1-3 was 69.7. On Sunday, he threw three touchdowns, ran for another, completed 75.9 percent of his passes and threw one pick for a passer rating of 130.8 -- his best single-game rating since Week 17 of his MVP season in 2015. Yes, it had been 22 games for Newton since he had a performance like the one he did vs. New England.
Most telling: In that MVP season, Newton had a single-game passer rating better than 130.8 ... just twice.
So in the best season of Newton's career, he was better than his most recent performance just twice. And in his entire career, he's had better single-game passer ratings just five times in his seven years in the NFL.
It's funny, a lot of people around here looked at Carolina's struggling offense as an opportunity for the New England defense to have a solidifying performance. Turns out Carolina's offense was looking at the situation the same way.
--It's impressive that Newton was able to finish with those numbers even after his brutal decision to chuck a deep ball to Damiere Byrd. Both Butler and Rowe had the 5-foot-9 Byrd double-covered. Meanwhile, Funchess was just kind of hanging out near the first-down marker:
Patriots defense got an interception, but they also got away with one.
--All this talk about "miscommunication" with Gilmore in the secondary reminded me of a play last year in Buffalo, involving Gilmore and some apparent miscommunication. It was a 53-yard bomb to Chris Hogan, who simply ran right past Gilmore and hauled in the deep ball for a touchdown late in the first quarter.
Instead of even attempting a diving tackle, Gilmore turned to his teammates during the play to seemingly yell about a missed call or something of the sort:
Rex Ryan said afterwards that the defense checked from Cover 2 to Cover 4, but Gilmore didn't get the notice. Gilmore played Hogan as if he'd have safety help over the top, but he of course did not.
Here's what Erik Turner of USA Today wrote after that game:
Gilmore has reacted in this manner several times this year. It is upsetting to see because even if it wasn't his fault, you don't throw your teammates under the bus like that.
Even more eye-opening was that coach Ryan confirmed that Stephon blew the coverage.
For a guy that wants to be paid top-dollar, he has not lived up to that sort of compensation, or the expectations set for him prior to the season.
He has been beaten by opposing wide receivers, but that happens to every cornerback. What's more concerning are his apparent selfish play and his attitude towards his teammates in his contract year.
Is that someone you want to pay big money for?
Is all or any of that fair? Maybe not entirely. But given the struggles of Gilmore in his first four weeks in New England, and given some of the postgame comments from McCourty and Duron Harmon, it's absolutely worth noting.
--If you're a glass half-full kind of guy, there's this: Maybe the defense can communicate better on the road, where the home crowd is quiet while the offense operates. There's some anecdotal evidence to this, as they allowed their fewest points of the year in their only road game thus far.
--It's that time of the week: Time to compare Brady's 40-year-old season to Brett Favre's 40-year-old season. If you didn't already know, Favre had the greatest season for any 40-year-old quarterback in NFL history. It's basically the only exceptional season for a 40-year-old. So here's how they compare through four games.
Brady, 2017: 103-for-155 (66.5%), 1,399 yards, 10 TDs, 0 INTs
Favre, 2009: 85-for-125 (68%), 837 yards, 8 TDs, 1 INT
--Folks, you only get these opportunities so often in your life, so I'm going to take it. It's time to play ... IF THE SEASON ENDED TODAY. Does the season actually end today? Nope. Am I going to pretend it does? For a moment, yup.
And so, IF THE SEASON ENDED TODAY, here's how your AFC playoff picture would look:
1. Kansas City Chiefs
2. Buffalo Bills
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
5. Denver Broncos
6. Oakland Raiders
Outside looking in: New York Jets, New England Patriots, Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans, Baltimore Ravens
Yes, a team that just lost to the Jets would be in the playoffs, while the Patriots would not.
I guess it's a good thing the season doesn't end today.
OK, back to real life, where Thursday night ought to be very, very interesting.
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