PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 30: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on October 30, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
The Patriots are now second in the AFC East again behind the Buffalo Bills. Can they still come back? And how?
The storm has passed, but in its wake is left the debris of disillusionment and confusion regarding the direction of the 2011 New England Patriots. Yesterday's sloppy loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers certainly gave the Pats and their fans a lot to consider about the makeup of this team going forward, and their chances at a successful postseason this year.
The loss wasn't just a story of a team being beat. There are some disturbing trends that have developed in this team since Tom Brady's return from injury in 2009. There is also a vast amount of displaced blame going around, as people misunderstand the actual issues that seem to be plaguing this still successful, albeit questionable group.
It's important to make one thing clear before anything else: The Patriots do NOT have a problem with their offense. That is the wrong place to look for blame, so if you're heading down that path, please turn back immediately. There are plenty of people to blame and I will get to them, I promise. But Tom Brady and the New England offense are still a Super Bowl caliber offense in this era's NFL.
The past three Super Bowl offenses have all won and lost these types of games. Around here, there is a backwards twisted belief that when Brady isn't putting up 350 yards and 3 or 4 touchdowns and the offense doesn't put up over 30 points, then there is something wrong. There is nothing wrong.
2010 Green Bay Packers: 10-6
Those six losses:
17-20 to the Bears
13-16 to the Redskins in OT
20-23 to the Dolphins in OT
17-20 to the Falcons
3-7 to the Lions
27-31 to the Patriots
The same Aaron Rodgers that led his team to a Super Bowl over the Steelers managed no touchdowns, and his offense backed him up with a whopping 3 points...against the Lions.
2009 New Orleans Saints: 13-3
Those three losses:
17-24 to the Cowboys
17-20 to the Bucs in OT
10-23 to the Panthers
The Panthers? Even without Brees and most starting players playing, your high school team could've beaten the 2009 Carolina Panthers.
2008 Pittsburgh Steelers: 12-4
Those four losses:
6-15 to the Cardinals
14-21 to the Giants
20-24 to the Colts
14-31 to the Titans
Fabulous playoff caliber offenses lose the types of games in the regular season that the Patriots lost yesterday. They just do. And they lose them to teams much worse than the number one team in their conference. They lose to the Dolphins, and the Panthers, and the Titans.
Tom Brady yesterday went 24/35 for 198 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions; a QB rating of101.8. Some say the rating is deceiving. Why?
He was facing a team that was pulling off their best defensive performance of their season, with one of the most feared safeties in the league. They were clicking on all cylinders, pulling away from their normal zone defenses to very successfully play man-to-man coverage. Brady was sacked three times. He was under pressure all game. Sometimes you play a defense that plays as well as the Steelers did yesterday.
What more would anyone have had Brady do? The receivers and tight ends actually got more separation than it seemed, but even when they made the catch the Steelers where right there to tackle. It was a truly great defensive performance from a notoriously great defensive team.
For Brady to come away from that type of defensive game by an apponent with that level of efficiency, albeit unimpressive statistics is a feat very few quarterbacks in the league could pull off; perhaps only Aaron Rodgers and a (healthy) Peyton Manning could. (Side note: Drew Brees and the Saints came off a 57 point win over the Colts last week to throw one touchdown and 2 picks and lose by 10 points to the formerly win-less St. Louis Rams. They countered with? ... AJ Feeley.)
So leave Brady and the vast majority of the offense alone.
By the way, was anyone else impressed by the epic return of veteran back Kevin Faulk? He came in to play his first game since Week 3 of 2010 and rushed for 32 yards while catching 5 balls for 20 yards. For a 35 year old that has just come off an injury that put him out of the game for 13 months, I'd say that's pretty damn good. Maybe he was just trying to show Ochocinco how it's done.
Tanya's Blame Game
Now it's time to get down to the blame, in sequential order starting with those who get the most blame.
Bill Belichick and the on-field coaching personnel
I had an eerily similar feeling about the Rob Gronkowski -touchdown-non-challenge-debacle as I did about the now infamous "4th and 2" from 2009 against the Colts. Only this time, I have no way to rationalize my way into Belichick's mind. When it came to 4th and 2, there was a lot to defend. Bill trusted his offense more than his defense. How many times had Brady converted an important 4th down? Peyton Manning was so capable of driving down the field and picking apart that Patriot defense that I generally supported Bill's decision in that situation; even when it failed.
There is no defense for not challenging the ruling on the field that Gronkowski's catch was not a touchdown. The Patriots were dangerously close to having that game be completely out of reach as it was; they were down 13 points with just 4 minutes left on the clock. At the time of Gronkowski's catch, they still had three timeouts and the two minute warning. Not only that, but Brady, Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez where all signaling to their sideline that they believed it was a touchdown. Those are three players very familiar with touchdowns and the end zone.
Belichick said postgame that he did not have enough information to feel comfortable challenging the call. He must have meant "besides three of my best offensive players telling me to challenge it." Worst case scenario: Belichick loses the challenge and is charged a timeout. He still would've had 2 timeouts and the two minute warning. Instead, Brady had to run the hurry up and burned almost 90 more seconds off the clock before he got another touchdown to Hernandez.
Also, what was with the onside kick? As mentioned in my postgame recap, the Patriots have not successfully completed an onside kick since 1994. Punting the ball to Ben Roethlisberger with 2 and a half minutes left is not ideal, but the fact that he distrusts his defense is unnerving. Not only is there a chance for a special teams play during the return, but ironically, the Patriots defensive line stepped up big on that final Pittsburgh possession. Andre Carter had already sacked Big Ben twice in the game, and in the final drive he hit Isaac Redman for a loss of a yard. Mark Anderson and Kyle Love followed up with two consecutive sacks for a loss of 17 more yards. They made huge plays. And instead of having almost two minutes left, Brady got the ball back deep in his own end with 19 seconds.
I can't put myself in the head of this Patriots coach right now. None of his decision making in the final 6 minutes of that game seemed to be consistent with a coach that was looking to do whatever he could do to win that game. It also doesn't seem to be consistent with a coach that trusts any of his players, even those who have proven themselves.
Just when you think you couldn't be more disappointed with the Patriots defensive backs, they go and have this atrocity of a game. After the confusing release of Leigh Bodden earlier in the week, and the third signing of a guy named Philip Adams, they looked weaker than ever before. A secondary that is starting James Ihedigbo whose sole purpose should remain on special teams, is always in trouble.
But even this issue seems to reflect back poorly on the coach and ownerhship and their decision making. Can anyone say that this secondary wouldn't be at least a little, If not significantly better, if it still featured Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders rather than Guy Signed Off the Practice Squad for the Third Time, and Guy Signed Off the Practice Squad for the Fourth Time? There has been no rhyme or reason for the movement of these defensive backs, and they never develop any type cohesion because it seems to never be the same group of players on the field from week to week.
Devin McCourty has been a massive disappointment in his coverage this year, but he and Patrick Chung have done their fair share to lead this team in tackling with 99 combined total tackles. They aren't going to the Pro Bowl and they have a lot to improve on, but with any type of assistance, maybe their mistakes and ineptitudes wouldn't be so glaringly obvious.
Recap of Two Major Things to Keep in Mind After This Loss
- The offense is fine. Besides the Ochocinco bust and a major Danny Woodhead drop off from last year, their offense is as productive and capable as any in the NFL. And the Kevin Faulk triumphant return is at least a little bit encouraging.
- There is some sort of communication/trust gap between Bill Belichick and his players, and it's beginning to look more and more like Belichick needs some better help on that staff than he has surrounded himself with. He's one of the oldest coaches in the league. Maybe it's time to accept that he can no longer do this all on his own. He is still more than capable of leading a team to a Super Bowl, as is Brady. They just need to get on the same page, and the team needs to start being more creative defensively.