In losing to the Cincinnati Bengals, 13-6, the New England Patriots offense has once again come into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
Before, the stench was wiped away by the deodorant that is winning football games. Now, though, the Patriots offense is sweating profusely and needs to reapply that speed stick as quickly as possible.
Fixing what ails the Patriots offense is not a one-man job. It's going to take improvement from all parties involved.
"There's no magic potion or formula you use," said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels of how to fix the Patriots woes, "and you certainly try to give them every opportunity during the course of the week to practice the things that they're going to do on Sunday, and then hopefully those happen to carry over."
For years, the defense has been referred to as a "read-and-react" unit, in that they look for certain clues from the offense as a play unfolds (alignment, assignment, etc.) but as former Boston Globe NFL writer Greg Bedard points out, the Patriots' offense is nearly as close to that description as the defense.
There are route rules in the Patriots offense. Like, if the safety stays high, WR should run to the corner.— Greg A. Bedard (@GregABedard) October 8, 2013
Without knowing the calls, including how a receiver is supposed to run a route against a certain coverage, it's impossible to know for 100 percent certain who is at fault on each play. Here is a series of educated guesses, though, that might help us get closer to the heart of the problem.
Bad passes and reads from Tom Brady
There were six negative plays that I put on Brady -- one was a sack where he held onto the ball too long (4.23 seconds), three were bad throws (one in driving rain), and two times, he didn't see an open receiver.
With 12:00 remaining on 1st-and-10 in the second quarter, Brady had intended to go deep over the middle for wide receiver Julian Edelman. The Bengals, cognizant of the fact that Edelman is Brady's most trusted target, opted to bracket him with safety help.
Brady threw it away, out of bounds, but had he simply looked to his checkdown, he would have found fullback James Develin wide open in the flat, with plenty of space in front of him.
Who knows why Brady didn't look for the easy completion underneath to Develin, but it was right there, and could have given the Patriots some easy yards and potentially a first down. The Patriots punted three plays later.
Brady made a similar decision, throwing to a double-covered Danny Amendola down the seam on third down, when he had Edelman breaking open to the right and could have probably moved the chains.
Those were not the only easy yards Brady left on the field. There were also a pair of bad throws that, if more accurate, could have helped the Patriots sustain key drives.
He had tight end Michael Hoomanawanui coming open over the middle of the field on 2nd-and-8 with 8:08 remaining in the second quarter.
Brady tried to fit the ball into a tight window, and may have felt he needed to throw it behind the safety underneath. The ball was thrown so fast, however, that the safety wouldn't have been able to react in time, anyway. Had Brady thrown this in front of Hoomanawanui, it might have been completed. Instead, it was incomplete, and running back LeGarrette Blount fumbled on the very next play.
Who knows if the Patriots would have scored on this drive. Either way, it's a pass Brady would probably love to have back.
Bad routes and drops from receivers
There were six dropped passes, or eight if you want to count two drops that would have been extremely difficult catches -- one by wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins that was initially ruled a catch, but was overturned on review; another on a would-be touchdown catch by Edelman.
It's hard to blame Edelman too strongly for this drop; he was being interfered with by Bengals cornerback Adam Jones, who never once turned to look for the ball and wrestled with Edelman the entire time the receiver tried to catch the ball.
Thompkins had to dive for his catch, and nearly came down with it, but in truth, this would have been an incredible catch. We see receivers make these catches in the NFL, but it's hard to hold Thompkins at too much fault for failing to corral this one. I put the offensive line at fault for this one, but more on that later.
There were some drops, however, that were inexcusable. That statement could apply to all three of Amendola's drops.
He dropped one on the final drive, on 2nd-and-10 from the Bengals' 44-yard line.
The rain had stopped falling at this point, and Amendola created enough separation from the coverage of safety Chris Crocker. Amendola let the ball get into his chest a little bit, and he was unable to tuck it away before it slipped out of his grasp.
One of the most inexcusable drops of the day was on a screen pass for running back Brandon Bolden in the first quarter.
The execution, across the board, was perfect. There was a guard out in front, ready to get a downfield block on anyone in front of him, and there was plenty of open real estate in front of Bolden to get at least 15 yards on the play.
In all, three players dropped passes: Amendola (3), Bolden (2) and Edelman (2) with two more drops (Edelman and Thompkins) deemed too difficult to catch.
Of course, the one play that sticks out in everyone's mind is the bad route by Dobson, who broke toward the middle of the field when Brady threw to the corner (here's the .gif)
It's hard to place the blame for these types of misreads, because again, we don't know the call or what sight adjustments the receiver is expected to make on his route. It's easy to see, however, that Dobson begins breaking toward the corner for a brief moment when Brady starts to throw that direction, before Dobson then cuts back inside over the middle.
We also know that Brady has 12 going on 13 years of experience in this system, and Dobson has five going on six months of experience. That leads me to side with Brady on this one.
Great defensive plays
Make no mistake about Sunday's loss; the Patriots left some opportunities on the field, but the Bengals played great defense. I counted 10 plays on which the Bengals did something that could constitute disrupting the pass -- whether it was creating pressure on Brady that caused a bad throw, breaking up a pass or simply blanketing receivers downfield.
Cornerback Terence Newman made the play of the day on a deep pass from Brady to Dobson in the fourth quarter. Dobson ran a fade route toward the right pylon in front of the end zone, but Newman stayed with him every step of the way before leaping at just the right moment to knock the ball out of Dobson's grasp.
The Bengals logged two pass breakups on the day -- this one, and the pass for Edelman in the end zone broken up by Adam Jones.
On this pass, there were at least three Bengals defenders pushing Patriots offensive linemen up field and right into Brady's lap. With so much traffic at his feet, he had no way of stepping into the throw, and it landed short of the mark -- and was nearly intercepted.
He had no pocket on the throw to Thompkins that was ruled a catch but reversed. Both Solder and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer gave up the edge rather quickly, but with enough room from the interior offensive linemen, Brady was able to wiggle his way out of trouble and got the pass off to Thompkins.
With a bit more time to settle his feet, Brady could have made this a much easier reception for Thompkins.
Overall, Brady was pressured on 18 of his 42 dropbacks (42.9 percent of the time); two of those pressures directly led to incomplete passes like the one above, and four were sacks.
The Patriots won't face a defense as good as the Bengals every week -- but they will at least one more time this season.
Rarely will you see me call out the coaching staff. They work tirelessly to devise a game plan, and I won't pretend to put in nearly the work these guys do every week.
Why, though, would they call a pass to tackle Nate Solder in the end zone? Yes, he has some experience as a tight end, and if it works, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels looks like a genius, but being that the Patriots had so few opportunities in the red zone, you'd think they would want to maximize those opportunities with sure-fire plays. Solder has some experience at tight end, having played there before moving to tackle for Colorado, but he admits that's pretty far in the past.
"It's been a long time since I've been a tight end," he said with a laugh, "and I think I'm more of a tackle now, for sure."
It's understandable that the Patriots would try anything and everything to score down in the red zone, where they've struggled (35.3 percent of their red zone possessions end in touchdowns, second-lowest in the league ahead of the Jacksonville Jaguars). This is just further proof of how badly the Patriots miss tight end Rob Gronkowski.
It felt wrong going through and assigning blame for all the bad plays without at least pointing out some of the positives.
In his first game back after missing four weeks with that groin injury, Amendola did a nice job of separating. He's never had a problem with drops in his career (11 drops from 2009-2012). Those will probably go away when he gets back in the swing of things.
He contorted his body to make the difficult catch that set the Patriots up at the one-yard line. It's a tough break that he didn't make it into the end zone, but it's a small miracle he even corralled that pass -- and to contort that way on a sore groin is impressive.
Final incompletion tally: seven on the receivers, five on Brady, three on the pass protection/pass rush from Cincinnati, two pass break-ups by Cincinnati, one difficult drop, one spike, one bad play call
And a partridge in a pear tree.
Plenty of blame to go around, it seems, but the final conclusion is that everyone has to step their game up -- Brady with more accurate throws, receivers by hanging onto the ball and running the correct routes, and the offensive line with better blocking up front.
Getting Thompkins and Dobson assimilated is going to be a process. Because of that, the veteran receivers can't afford to make mistakes. The offensive line needs to buy Brady time to go through his reads and find an open man. Brady needs to start putting the ball in spots where his receivers can catch it.
A little improvement from each group goes a long way to helping the Patriots offense find its groove, and improvement is one thing we can count on from the Patriots year-in and year-out.
Since 2010, the Patriots have lost 10 regular season games; nine of those losses have come in the first eight games of the season.
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