Pressure’s on, Patriots

Friday October 3rd, 2014

As I watched the last eight quarters of the New England Patriots—four against Oakland, four against Kansas City—this week, I thought back to a game Brett Favre played once. This was in January 2002, and the Packers were getting smoked by the Greatest Show on Turf in St. Louis in a divisional playoff game.

With 11 minutes left and the Packers down by 28, Favre, knowing the only way his team had a prayer to climb back into the game was by scoring fast, started taking ill-advised, low-percentage chances. Three more interceptions in eight minutes followed, and a 45-17 Green Bay loss was sealed.

With 11 minutes left Monday in Kansas City, and the Patriots down by 27, Tom Brady, knowing the only chance his team had was to score fast, took an ill-advised, low-percentage chance. He threw late to an in-cutting Danny Amendola—who wasn’t going to be open anyway—about 15 yards downfield, and Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah picked it off and ran 39 yards for a touchdown.

The Patriots have three problems right now on offense, the least of which is Tom Brady. Now, Brady’s not playing well—there’s no doubt about it. But a quarterback can be great only when the complimentary pieces around him are in place, and playing well. And his line and receivers aren’t helping him enough right now. (Not to mention the defense, which got steamrolled in Kansas City, surrendering three 80-yard-plus scoring drives.) The Chiefs won, 41-14.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is 1-4 all-time against the Patriots, but the lone win came last season. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images) Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is 1-4 all-time against the Patriots, but the lone win came last season. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

It is not a good time for the only unbeaten team in the AFC, Cincinnati (3-0), to be visiting the 2-2 Patriots on Sunday night. And New England will be getting the rested Bengals, coming off their Week 4 bye, while the Patriots are working on a short week. But that is not a big concern for Bill Belichick right now. His totally out-of-sync offense is.

On Thursday, I asked Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis what he saw when he watched the Patriots on offense right now, and I thought he hit it just right: “They had a bad game on the road against a team that’s very tough to beat at home. You turn the ball over in this league, and you’re usually going to lose. I still think they have a great quarterback in Tom Brady. He still has the ability to stand in the pocket and play as well as anybody. But the things they’ve done with play-action in the past just aren’t there now, and they’ve got some young guys who are learning on the job. That isn’t easy."

The question now: Can the Patriots’ line plug the leaks, and can the receiver group start to get the separation it needs, on the fly as New England heads into three games in 12 days, all against good pressure teams: Cincinnati on Sunday night, at Buffalo the following Sunday, and the Jets at home four nights later?

We’ll start with the first problem: the transient offensive line. Just for this week, I’m stealing a section of the Monday column to start the Friday column. Here goes …

Stat of the Week

According to the NFL video-dissectors at Pro Football Focus, the best and worst at pass-protection will be meeting in Foxboro Sunday night. The numbers:

Team Sacks/Hits/Pressures Average per Game NFL Rank
Cincinnati 10 3.3 1
New England 55 13.8 32

 

The Bengals have played one game fewer, but you get the point. Andy Dalton’s been able to make, and eat, a ham sandwich back in the pocket. Tom Brady’s under the gun more than he’s been in any season of his career.

The real debacle game for the Patriots wasn’t Monday night in Kansas City; it was the previous week, at home, in the 16-9 survival bowl against Oakland. The Raiders stink, but they looked like the Lyle Alzado/Ted Hendricks marauders in Week 3 against the Patriots. So awful were the leaks, particularly in the middle of the line, that Belichick ordered an incredible makeover before the Monday night game. From left to right against Oakland, the Patriots started: Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon, Dan Connolly, Jordan Devey and Sebastian Vollmer. That changed against Kansas City to this, from left tackle to right tackle: Solder, Connolly, rookie fourth-round pick Bryan Stork, rookie fourth-round compensatory pick Cameron Fleming, and Vollmer—with Cannon playing 20 snaps at tackle, nine at left tackle with Solder going to the bench, and 11 at right tackle with Vollmer going to the bench. Think of how desperate New England was. Every position on the line was shaken up. To do that before a game at Arrowhead Stadium, one of the toughest places for a visiting team to play because of the intense crowd noise, shows how bad Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels thought the line play was against Oakland.

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Blame Belichick for some of that, for not being able to find a way to keep Logan Mankins, the leader of the group, traded 11 days before the start of the season to Tampa Bay because he wouldn’t accept a pay cut. Part of the reason, too, has to be the retirement of one of the best line coaches ever, Dante Scarnecchia, in the off-season; journeyman coach Dave DeGuglielmo took his spot.

Blame Belichick, too, for the player acquisition. Of the 20 players New England has picked in the top three rounds of the past five drafts, one (Solder, first round, 2011) has been an offensive lineman. Two—Dobson (second round, 2013); Taylor Price (third round, 2010)—have been wideouts. Dobson was the 59th pick last year and has been a healthy scratch the past two weeks. Price is long gone. He had zero impact in New England.

Those decisions are coming home to roost, along with the only money free-agent signing at wideout—Amendola—who hasn’t produced anything like the man he replaced, Wes Welker. And Rob Gronkowski is still coming back from Jan. 8 knee surgery. Gronkowski has played just 53 percent of the snaps so far, and on Thursday bristled at suggestions he wasn’t ready to play more. His percentage of plays should continue to rise.

* * *

What I saw against Kansas City was a C-minus performance by the line. Not a disaster, but not a winning game. The Chiefs opened the game with six defensive backs on the field, which said two things: defensive coordinator Bob Sutton thought he could get pressure with four rushers because of the weak Patriots line, and extra men to shadow Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman would cut down Brady’s open options. Right on both counts. On third-and-three at the Pats’ 34 with 2:43 left in the half, down 14-0, the Patriots were still very much in the game. The Chiefs rushed four, with Dontari Poe beating left guard Connolly to the inside and Justin Houston beating right guard Fleming. At center, Stork helped neither guard, rotating his head to look for a man to help but deciding too slowly and helping no one. Brady barely slipped through the Poe/Houston rush at him and ran forward; he easily could have run and slid for the first down, but instead threw to Edelman. Cornerback Marcus Cooper made a diving pass-breakup. New England had to punt, and Kansas City added a field goal before halftime.

The key Sunday night: score early. If the Patriots get behind and the Bengals can send extra rushers at Brady because he has to throw too much, it’ll be curtains for New England.

Brady looked to be at fault on both second-half interceptions. Edelman stopped short on a intermediate route up the left sideline, and Brady instead threw where Edelman would have been had he kept running. Edelman sat down in an open spot; Brady threw to a covered spot. Sean Smith intercepted. That’s probably a Brady error. On the Abdullah pick, the only chance Brady had to complete it was to throw it before Amendola was two steps into his cut, so Abdullah wouldn’t have such an easy play. But Brady waited, and it was an easy interception.

Our Andy Benoit wrote this week that the Patriots’ problems are fixable, and I agree. A couple of things stuck out from watching the tape against the Chiefs: Brandon LaFell can be a decent threat. At 6-2 and 210, he’s tall and athletic, competes for the ball well; he has just medium speed but good instincts. And the receivers, mostly, are not separating well right now. With Brady having to rush his throws and receivers usually very close to the coverage, that’s a recipe for interceptions and more incompletions than usual. Really, if Edelman and LaFell stay healthy, and if Gronkowski starts playing 70 percent of the snaps, Brady’s going to stand a better chance, starting Sunday night.

Brandon LaFell is coming off a six-catch, 119-yard performance in Week 4. (Jim Davis/Getty Images) Brandon LaFell is coming off a six-catch, 119-yard performance in Week 4. (Jim Davis/Getty Images)

The fact that Stork and Fleming had a couple of rough moments apiece but weren’t turnstiles consistently Monday night is good news. The Bengals don’t have as penetrating a defensive front (with Geno Atkins struggling a bit coming back from his ACL surgery) as Kansas City’s, and the Cincinnati front seven has but 4.5 sacks in three games so far.

The key Sunday night: score early. If the Patriots get behind and the Bengals can send extra rushers at Brady because he’s got to throw too much, it’ll be curtains for New England. The line might be improving from the Oakland nadir, but it’s still an Achilles heel for the Patriots, and will be until Stork and Fleming (who has a hand injury and is iffy for Sunday night anyway) learn the NFL game on the fly.

Last point: The Patriots are in the weakest division in football, and they’ve been here before. Recently, in fact. In 2012, New England was 1-2, and losing at halftime of Week 4, 21-7 at Buffalo. The Patriots went on to win that game, and they finished the year 12-4, winning the division by five games.

I can’t predict the same thing will happen this year. The line is too worrisome. In fact, I think if they win the division, it’ll be more of a 9-7 fight-to-the-death-thing. But watching Brady and Belichick over the years, I've seen some embarrassing days that they’ve overcome. There’s reason to think this slide could be worse, particularly against pressure defenses. Gronkowski has to play more, and Shane Vereen has to be more a part of the offensive attack, in the screen and play-action game. And Brady has to stay relatively clean.

It’s only Week 5. But this is a big game for the Patriots. Even if they lose, they have to be in this game late, and play competitively on offense. “We have to do a good job defending the passing lanes, and we have to dictate where they throw it,’’ Marvin Lewis said Thursday. When Brady is on, he usually has had enough options if, say, Gronkowski is consistently doubled. New England has to develop LaFell into another consistent option. And that takes time, which New England doesn’t have right now. Sunday night will be a fascinating game. 

Eddie Lacy ran through the Vikings defense for 105 yards on 13 carries in the Packers' 42-10 win Thursday night. (John Konstantaras/Getty Images) Eddie Lacy ran through the Vikings defense for 105 yards on 13 carries in the Packers' 42-10 win Thursday night. (John Konstantaras/Getty Images)

About Last Night

Green Bay 42, Minnesota 10. Average margin of five Thursday night games this year: 29.0 points. So there will be calls for the Thursday games to go away. Well, if the reason is because you think the Thursday games are unfair to players who can’t recover in time to play four days after a Sunday game, that’s good logic, and you’ll have the players on your side. But if you think it’s because the games either unfairly favor the home team or something else, you won’t be right. A five-game stretch is just not enough to draw a conclusion that playing on Thursday unfairly leads to blowouts. Last year, for instance, home teams were 10-7 in Thursday games, which is not out of order with the percentage of home-team victories in the NFL. And the final nine Thursday games last season were decided by 7, 7, 2, 7, 30, 4, 3, 7 and 2 points. Who knows what the future holds this year, but with Indianapolis-Houston, Jets-New England, San Diego-Denver and New Orleans-Carolina coming up, I can’t see many 42-10 games on the horizon.

Player You Need To Know This Weekend

Odell Beckham Jr., wide receiver, New York Giants (number 13). The longest hamstring injury in recent NFL history seems to have healed—at least well enough for Beckham, the 12th pick in last May’s draft, to see his first action Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons in New Jersey. “I’m not limited at all," Beckham said Wednesday. The Giants need Beckham, with Matt Ryan and his cast of weapons coming to town. Victor Cruz and Larry Donnell will be better with one of the most dangerous rookies to enter the league this year in the fold. He practiced well Wednesday, and the Giants expect him to make his debut in a limited receiving role Sunday afternoon.

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Bose Sound Bite of the Week

Ravens receiver Steve Smith Sr., during last week's revenge game against his former team, the Panthers:

 “Ready for a sound bite? Here we go. This is the nail hitting in the coffin. You’re dead. Take your ass back to Carolina. Make sure you mow my lawn too while you’re out there! Keep it clean for me."

[audio mp3="http://www.si.com/sites/default/files/audio/mmqb/2014/10/steve-smith-mow-my-lawn.mp3"][/audio]

 

Regular Old Quote of the Week

“He doesn’t even have the cojones to tell us to our face [about being released last spring]. We have to hear it from someone else. Then he calls and says it wasn’t personal. If the first thing that comes out is, ‘Well it wasn’t personal,’ then guess what? It was personal.”

—Baltimore receiver Steve Smith Sr., on Carolina GM Dave Gettleman, to WFNZ radio in Charlotte. 

Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend

Alex Smith (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images) Alex Smith (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

1. Alex Smith returning to the scene of the … Well, forget the wise cracks. Smith actually has never played at the stadium he’ll be playing in Sunday, Levi’s Stadium; he played 38 miles up the coast in Candlestick for the first eight years of his career. But he’ll be playing against the coach who benched him late in the Super Bowl season two years ago in favor of Colin Kaepernick. Even though Smith is a Joe Cool kind of guy, mature way beyond his years, and he won’t fly off a la Steve Smith-versus-Carolina, you can be sure that deep down he wants to win this game 63-0, with nine touchdown passes. Never will you hear anything anti-Niner out of him. “One of the classiest people I’ve ever been around," Kaepernick said this week.

2. How long the Jets stick with Geno Smith. There’s an inevitability in the air in New Jersey these days. Mike Vick’s bound to replace Smith at quarterback for the Jets. Could it happen 3,000 miles away, in the face of a hard pass-rush led by Dwight Freeney in San Diego? We’ll see. But I continue to think the Jets are talking brave about being solidly behind Smith. But with the Chargers, Broncos and Patriots coming in 12 days starting Sunday, Rex Ryan knows three losses here mean the Jets’ season would be over by Oct. 16. So, a shaky Smith on Sunday could lead to the quarterback change.

3. A feisty Kyle Orton taking the reins from EJ Manuel in Buffalo. Asked Wednesday why he felt he would run the Buffalo offense better than E.J. Manuel, who is being benched after four games, the well-traveled Orton said: “I’m not saying that I will. That’s a loaded question. That’s a crap question." Okay then.

4. Jim Schwartz game-planning for Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Well, who would know them any better than the man who head-coached Stafford for every game he ever played in the NFL until this season? Schwartz, now Buffalo's defensive coordinator, brings the Bills to Detroit on Sunday.

5. Peyton Manning chasing Favre. Really good game Sunday in Denver—3-0 Cards at 2-1 Broncos. Manning’s next touchdown pass will be the 500th of his NFL life. Brett Favre has the most, with 508. “That particular statistic usually leads to winning football games," Manning said. "That’s what I’ve always thought about. As far as the other thing, when asked about it, obviously you’re just trying to win this football game, but when asked about it, I have reflected on how many great teammates and coaches that I have been with along the way that have been a part of that. You don’t throw that many touchdowns without a lot of help."

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6. The slump of LeSean McCoy. Last two games: 29 carries, 39 rushing yards. The offensive line is all beat up, and the Eagles have a formidable front coming to town to test McCoy in the form of St. Louis’ young guns. “Mike Tyson said, ‘Everybody has a plan until they get hit in the face,'" said Chip Kelly this week. “We got hit in the face and we've got to respond to it."

7. Houston (3-1) at Dallas (3-1): The reason I hate the NFL schedule. Great matchup, could be a great rivalry. But it isn’t. Why? The Cowboys and Texans, the only two NFL teams in a football-mad state, play each other once every four years and that is all! The NFL needs to make provisions so that the great regional rivalries can actually flourish instead of laying dormant with four years passing between AFC-NFC meetings.

8. Tony Sparano won’t be on a bye this weekend. He’s wanted another head-coaching chance, and even though the Raiders are the 33rd-best opportunity in pro football (hey, there has to be an Arena League job that’s better), Sparano will work himself back into contention for a head-coaching chance either in Oakland or elsewhere by winning four or five games in an impossible situation. That's why he’ll be working this weekend, even as his players are off.

9. The NFL prepping for a big league meeting next week. One owner told me this could be the biggest meeting in years. We’ll see what Roger Goodell has to say to his bosses, and to America.

• ANDREW BRANDT: The Ravens' Man in the Middle, Dick Cass

10. The Seahawks making their first of three long trips in the next four weeks. They’re at Washington on Monday night, then at St. Louis and Carolina in Weeks 7 and 8. By the way, is it an NFL rule that the Seahawks play in Charlotte every year or what? It happened in 2012 and 2013, and now 2014.

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