Despite some forward momentum for the New England Patriots after a win against the Baltimore Ravens, the team's strongest units fell short of delivering their end of the bargain in a 27-20 loss to the Houston Texans Sunday afternoon.
There is much speculation to what the root cause of the problem is for this New England team. In what could have been the season-ending loss to any chance of the playoffs, let's examine the real root causes of the disappointing loss in Week 11.
Newton has proved yet again, despite struggles on both his and the offense's part, he is not the issue when it comes to a lack of points. Newton played well despite some contrary narratives. He threw for 365 yards and a long touchdown to Damiere Byrd. The touchdown being the first from Newton to a Patriots receiver all year.
Newton made some nice throws during this game, ran the offense well, and threw over 40 passes in the contest.
However, what really needs to improve for Newton is how he reacts in the face of pressure.
In Sunday's game, Newton's mechanics seemed to crumble and come apart at the seams when a defender charged towards his face. Whether he isn't properly stepping into his throws, or there are other slight mechanical issues with his throwing motion, it makes for errant passes, short of the mark for his receivers.
So, while it's impossible to deny that Newton kept New England in the game, his passes short of the mark also helped in taking them out of it.
Running Back: B-
A lot of the offensive struggles can be chalked up to play-calling issues that almost seem to be overthinking the solutions.
New England came into this game with a top-five ranked rushing attack in the league, going up against the league's worst run defense. Logically, this should be the game to have Newton attempt his second-most pass attempts as a Patriot. I speak sarcastically of course, as this philosophy was a mystery Sunday afternoon. After a hot start on the ground and a Damien Harris opening-drive touchdown, the run game disappeared.
With the Texans committing to the inside run early, some outside tosses worked to get the run game stimulated. However, after Houston started to overcommit towards these outside tosses, the offense never attempted to pound Harris inside (the recipe to success for this offense). Not attempting to get the inside run game going against the league's worst defense against the run is a head-scratching decision.
To make matters worse, the Patriots likely lost Rex Burkhead for the season on Sunday. All three backs (Burkhead, Harris, and James White) saw time until Burkhead would have to be carted off. Then, Harris and White would split time and only make minor contributions to the game from there forward.
Wide Receiver: B+
Damiere Byrd finally had his breakout day. Byrd had been featured on several of my "Three Players to Watch" for the Patriots series. Each time they predicted a breakout game for Byrd. After all that guessing and waiting, he finally amassed his big game. Byrd went for six catches, 132 yards and one touchdown. He averaged 22.0 yards per catch, a fantastic number.
Byrd could have even added to his numbers on a few missed opportunities on Newton's part. However, besides Byrd, both N'Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers had fine performances. Harry did pick up two flags in this game that were a little costly early on. Despite the flags, both made solid catches, especially later in the game. The hope is that Harry and Meyers will be able to hold together the New England receiving core with Byrd developing and Julian Edelman eying a return to the lineup.
Tight End: C
Ryan Izzo wasn't asked to block in the heavy run sets this week. Instead, he was unfairly asked to block J.J. Watt at times. Izzo just can't accomplish that task -- everyone knows that.
It's a waste of time to nitpick all the little things about Izzo's game, as he has limitations that prevent him from being a reliable No.q tight end for an NFL team. He is in an uncomfortable spot with half the blame going to team-building (although the blame is slightly unfair) and the other half going to play-calling. Izzo's play is not up to par, however, not much more can really be expected of this young, slowly developing, late round pick.
Offensive Line: C+
Communication on the offensive line was not at it's best in Sunday's loss. The line just simply could not handle heavy-blitz looks, and in result, neither could Newton. Miscommunications between pulling guards and tight ends and whose man is who spawned some open rush lanes.
This goes without saying that the Texans' defense knew how to attack this group and manufacture pressure against Newton.
Defensive Line: C+
The defensive line makes for a hard grade, as the Patriots' defense held up against the Houston run game. A tale as old as time this season has been struggling to stop the run and the defensive line not setting the edge and getting pushed back. The run defense showed improvements last week against the Baltimore Ravens, then it allowed only 55 yards on the ground to the Texans this Sunday.
However, the much bigger story shifts the narrative on the New England defensive line. This is a line that cannot manufacture pressure on Deshaun Watson and cannot take him down.
Watson had enough time to sit down and read the paper in the pocket on Sunday. New England's defensive line needs some more agility to be able to compete with Watson, who seems to continuously fool them and their coaching staff. His ability to consistently extend the play against this line just cripples the secondary.
Belichick brought in linebackers and safeties this offseason to specifically combat against quarterbacks like Watson and Lamar Jackson. Maybe the formula worked for Jackson, however, Watson has showed that the right formula to stopping him may stem from improvements to the defensive line.
The only bright spot noticed from the linebacker spot was Josh Uche playing better and more often. Both Kyle Dugger and Uche are beginning to become pieces of this defense that can soon become cornerstones to stick in the organization for a long time. Uche appears to be figuring out the game at the NFL level, a very encouraging sign.
Besides that, Dugger and Phillips struggled with the tight end crossers all game. Ja'Whaun Bentley demonstrated that for any other formation besides heavy runs, he should not be a primary option at linebacker for the Patriots. This group also plays a hand in the lack of pass rush and that needs to be addressed as well.
What should be by far the biggest concern about this New England team is the hot and cool play from the secondary this season. This group is suppose to be the heart and soul of the defense and a group that plays an instrumental role in driving the Patriots to victory. That was certainly not the case on Sunday as the secondary was roasted and ripped apart by a good quarterback.
Where they really could not contend were the throws over the middle from Watson to his receivers and tight ends. The secondary tried to keep up with the speed and explosion of some of the Houston pass catchers, yet mistakes and coverage breakdowns were happening. Watson was getting the ball to his receivers in zone coverage before the coverage pieces could get enough depth to disrupt the pass.
Overall, this was not a good day for this group.
Special teams: B-
Return work from Gunner Olszewski has been suspect the last few games. His spot was put on notice in a recent press conference with Bill Belichick. After a few little hiccups involving situational awareness and putting the security of the ball in jeopardy, there is a chance that the Patriots look to someone else soon. Unless Olszewski can provide any receiving value like speculated over this year's training camp, he is going to have an uphill climb to stay fielding a 53-man roster spot, especially when looking ahead to next season.
Nick Folk was 2-for-2 on field goals in Week 11. Despite some struggles, he has really been a solid pickup at kicker, especially as he was picked up off the street last season. Jake Bailey had a fine game as well.
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